Eugene Weekly : Music : 11.19.09

Breaking Up Is Beautiful
Swell Season sticks with Joy through pain
by Molly Templeton

“Yeah, it is, I guess,” Swell Season frontman Glen Hansard said to Paste magazine when asked if Strict Joy, the new album from his band The Swell Season, is a breakup record. Hansard and Markéta Irglová — both singers; he plays guitar, she piano — rose into the public eye in 2007 in the film Once, a fictional story about a Dublin busker and the young immigrant woman with whom he forms a tentative and lovely creative partnership. Hansard and Irglová fell in love in real life, as often happens — and, as also often happens, they later fell out again. But The Swell Season, which began in 2006 with a self-titled album, continued, and it’s difficult not to feel that the story of Hansard and Irglová’s relationship is sunk deeply into the songs. 

But you wouldn’t have to know that story to feel that Strict Joy (which takes its title from a poem by James Stephens) is an album full of gentle regret, confessions, compassion and bare hearts. “I want to sit you down and talk,” Hansard insists on the soulful first track, “Low Rising.” Irglová’s delicate “Fantasy Man” repeats the lines, “So go on now, you are forgiven / Let’s put it down to life.” Their voices — hers fragile and sweet, his slightly gruff and careworn — make for gorgeous harmonies of contrast, especially on “High Horses,” which has a strange, concerned tone and plays out urgently and nearly wordlessly after the last chorus. Hansard’s wordy “The Verb” is an intense breakup song, lyrics-wise, but the impatient bass line, the dynamic shifts, give it an unexpectedly hopeful tone. It’s a heartstring-tugger that looks constantly forward.

The album’s runaway song, though, is “The Rain.” Much of the album is a slow burn, a temptation that builds with each play (and one or two songs feel a bit too much like filler). Not “The Rain,” insistent and aching, its repeating lyrics full of broken promises and self-awareness. Strict Joy is rich, passionate and resigned, and in its best songs, a sense of tempered restraint resonates with the personal lyrics to create an atmosphere of care, warmth and caution mixed with beauty in a way that speaks to experience and growth. In the interview with Paste, Hansard spoke about trying to “put a bit of positivity in something.” And that, more than anything — more than the practiced talent (members of Hansard’s other band, The Frames, fill out The Swell Season) or the effortless orchestrations — sets Strict Joy apart; it’s the rare breakup album that’s aware that the rawness it documents will change. 

The Swell Season. 8 pm Monday, Nov. 23, McDonald Theatre. $30 adv., $35 door.