Once a decade an album drops that has the power to stop you in your tracks, make you miss your subway stop, or reduce you to heaving sobs. This decade that album is Glen Hansard’s extraordinary Rhythm and Repose.
The truth is I haven’t heard an album this accomplished out of Ireland in decades. It’s staggering.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that it’s as good as it is -- after all, it’s been 20 years in the making.
To date Hansard, 42, has usually preferred to hitch his talent to an ensemble like the Frames or the Swell Season, so the sheer strength of his own solo work here feels like a revelation.
Longtime fans know that Hansard has always had the goods, but song after song on this soaring and simultaneously intimate album sound like a man coming into his own artistically, emotionally and spiritually.
Full of rich and often heartbreaking experience, they contain enough power individually to light up the long-suffering island he started from for the entire year.
“It’s very difficult for someone who makes the work to judge it, but I definitely feel like I just made something I can stand by,” Hansard tells the Irish Voice.
“When I made this I was in a very relaxed spot. I was in New York and I was hanging out with really good mates and living in a nice apartment that I could afford to rent. I was just in a good spot. I wasn’t suffering at all. It’s kind of the opposite of what they always say good works come from.”
Hansard was living a decent life in the aftermath of the Oscar winning Once movie, and things were good. For the first time in years he had enough time to let his imagination go and let all the stress fall away, allowing him to write a few tunes he admits he’s really happy with.
On an album that lays itself bare like this one, it can be hard to talk about its subjects – desire, love, betrayal, jealousy, hope, the sins of the past, the prayers for the future – without revealing too much of yourself and the man who wrote them, but here goes.
“I guess I wasn’t thinking about how it would be received when I made it. Oftentimes that’s what f***s up a record,” Hansard says.
“I kind of cleared the decks on this one and wrote the songs I needed to write. I do believe firmly that at a certain age – I’ve just turned 42 and this is the first record of my forties – your song needs to deepen. If it doesn’t then you’re just repeating the songs you wrote at a certain age.
“I still sing in the vernacular of relationships, but I kind of hope what time does to you deepens what you do. Your relationships broaden and deepen too.”
It’s a rare trick that an album this raw can sound this artful, too. The production by Thomas Bartlett (who has produced Antony and the Johnsons) is rich and seamless, giving the guitar its rightful place and its full register.
The playing is consistently magical, conjuring summer days, country roads, city streets, bed sheets, you name it.
“I walked into the studio at about 11 a.m. on a Monday morning and I’d sit in front of a microphone and I’d say, ‘This is in D,’ and I’d start playing. We were all there, we were all set up, everything was sound checked and ready.
“It’s the first time I got to experience what I imagine Van Morrison experiences every time he walks into a studio. I walked into a mike and said go. I’ve never done this in my life. Talk about a gift.
There’s a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with great musicians.”
Hansard admits he wasn’t planning to create a new album, but his new life here inspired him.
“I think New York is a city of excellence. A lot of the people you meet here are the best at what they do,” he offers.
“It makes sense that people like that tend to gravitate to the centers. You have to rise up to its energy. New York is one of those cities that commands excellence.”
One example of that kind of excellence is the track “Song of Good Hope” on Hansard’s new album. It’s a perfect union of sound and sentiment, a literally perfect song, something Leonard Cohen would have been proud to put his name to.
“My friend Ezra builds bicycles and he lives up in Harlem. He got cancer a couple of years ago and it devastated me because we’re so close. I found myself writing that song for him involuntarily one evening and I sang it to him,” Hansard revealed.
“That song fell out of me like a gift. I’m really happy to report that Ezra’s okay now, he beat it after a year and a half on chemo. It’s the song on the record I feel the most for.”
Meanwhile there was the bumper haul of eight Tony Awards that Once, the Broadway version of the Oscar winning film he starred in with Marketa Irglova, won on Sunday night. Hansard attended the Broadway bash with Irgolva.
“We didn’t know we had tickets, but someone got us some. Honestly, it was just so overwhelming. When it won Best Musical myself and Mar were just sitting together saying, ‘Oh my God.’
“We both left before the end. I just walked for forty blocks. I needed to do that, to just take it in. I was looking around at all the big buildings and thinking it’s the American Dream.
“I thought of that Tom Waits song. He sings, ‘I’m going to take you New York I’ll make it happen, I’ll be on the caboose, I’ll be drinking Manhattans.’”
You’d think by now he’d have an idea that he’s a star, but this is Glen Hansard the Dubliner, the Irishman who made his own luck, who wrote his own songs, who followed his own dream and is now astounded to discover it’s come true.
So I ask him, do the Irish know how to win?
“That’s a f***ing great question. That should be the headline of your piece. That’s the best question I’ve been asked in an interview ever,” Hansard says.
“I think one of the gifts of the Irish is the ability to see things from every perspective, and then after that there’s all the guilt that’s been drilled into us. I think that as a nation we’re very young.
“I still think we haven’t found our confidence. We’re only 80 years old. We’re an ancient people but colonized for so long that I still feel we don’t know how to own our successes.
“We’re more comfortable in the shade. When success comes were not sure how to be around our own.”
But success has clearly come to Hansard. So he admits that running away to New York was an important move for him.
“I love Ireland. I love it more than f***ing anything else in the world. But if you’re serious about your life and your work you have to bail. You have to get out of there.”
Hansard starts his national tour this week. Rhythm and Repose, will be released on June 19.
Glen Hansard - "Philander"