Sunday, August 12, 2012

Glen Hansard - Rhythm & Repose

*A few weeks ago, I was invited to join the staff over at AbsolutePunk, one of the biggest rock/pop-punk sites on the net, and home to a vast fan community and a very active discussion forum that I've been a part of for years. The offer came in response to my Gaslight Anthem album review (here), and needless to say, I was flattered and excited about the opportunity. This is the first of many reviews I will be writing for them.

ANTI- Records, 2012
Four stars

It was hard not to love Once, the 2007 musical film that starred folk duo The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová) and spawned the massively popular, Oscar-winning theme song “Falling Slowly.” For me, that film was the most personal piece of a tremendous year in film and music, and right from the first frame, I was enraptured. I can still see that scene in my head, a simple opening cut that centers upon Hansard himself, strumming his guitar in the middle of a Dublin street, crooning softly at first, and then suddenly exploding into a fireball of visceral emotion. Five years later, that song, “Say It To Me Now,” remains the most representative slice of Hansard’s discography: honest, heart-on-your-sleeve folk that feels calm, right up until the moment its singer lets loose completely. Since Once made him into a borderline folk superstar, Hansard has only made one other record (2009’s Strict Joy), but his music and his character have also lent themselves to a Tony award-winning musical (the Broadway adaptation of Once swept the awards in June), and he’s practically become a household name.

But the fame hasn’t come without a price: brought together by the songs and the honesty of their onscreen portrayals, Hansard and Irglová fell in love for real, a romance that was put to the test by a grueling world tour, and one that listeners could hear fracturing, in real time, on Strict Joy. The two held their artistic partnership together regardless, not willing to sacrifice the intense and intimate musical connection they have shared, but if the songs on Rhythm & Repose are any indication, the ghost of what was – and what could have been – still wears on Hansard.

Hansard has been in the game for over 20 years: he served as frontman for Irish folk-rock act The Frames before joining up with Irglová in 2006, but even with nearly a dozen albums under his belt, he’s never released anything on his own until now. The result is one of his best albums to date, fueled by regret and lingering heartbreak, and hits every cornerstone of the sound that audiences fell in love with during Once. In spirit, Irglová is still here too, lurking in the dark crevices of the most bombastic moments or coming to the forefront during the sparsest ones. The haunting opener, “You Will Become,” is a dedication to her and to the love the two shared together, and it serves as an entrancing hook for an album that never lets go. “We talked about talk of a gold ring/When you brought me one step closer to the heart of things,” Hansard sings during the song’s second verse, reminiscing about his lost relationship with a woman who is now married to someone else. It’s strikingly restrained, almost minimalistic in scope, but it hits hard regardless; it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Hansard’s music has always been balanced between bruising emotional crescendos (“Leave”) and frail moments of heartbreak (“In These Arms”). Here, he opts mostly for the latter, building an album on atmosphere and mood rather than on emotional fireworks. That’s not a bad thing, since it lends a deliberate pacing to the record that has been absent on previous efforts, allowing Hansard to build slowly to the grand emotional peaks. Producer Thomas Bartlett wisely keeps the focus on Glen’s vulnerable voice, but he never allows Rhythm & Repose to become a simple voice-and-guitar exercise either, drenching songs in ambient instrumentation that only make them more magnetic. A repetitive electronic blip plays through “Talking with Wolves,” while faux-organ chords provide the context for “Races” before drums and banjo enter halfway through to flesh things out. Hansard and Bartlett fill in the rest of the gaps with cold piano lines, organic backup vocals, subtle string sections, and even blistering guitar solos. All of it combines to turn Hansard’s slow-burn songwriting into spectacle, giving songs like the George Harrison flavored “Maybe Not Tonight” (complete with a sweeping slide guitar) or the jazz-tinged pop of “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” their heartbeats.

But while the care Hansard and Bartlett took in the studio is evident, the best moments on Rhythm & Repose would stand up equally well in their barest, most stripped down format. We watch a relationship dissolve before our eyes on “What Are We Gonna Do,” set to a backdrop of sparse acoustic chords and a haunting dance of strings, and when a female vocalist joins Hansard for the final verse, it’s the ghost of Irglová that immediately comes to mind. “What are we gonna do if that fire goes out?” asks the song’s conclusion, where Hansard’s wounds still feel fresh. The same can be said about the few moments when he really lets his voice go, like at the conclusion of “Bird of Sorrow,” where broken shouts of “I’m not leaving” overwhelm the texture, or “High Hope,” whose climax is nothing short of transcendent. As Hansard’s voice begins to strain and crack, it takes me back to the first time I ever heard his music, to the cathartic emotive force of “Say It To Me Now” and the way it hit me like a ton of bricks. Aside from Damien Rice, there’s no one in today’s music industry who sings with such utter conviction, with such emotional investment, or with such reckless abandon, and it’s these moments that make Glen Hansard such a treasure. That they come in the middle of a record that ebbs and flows with love, heartbreak, restraint, regret, and resignation, without a single weak point, only makes me adore them more.


  1. I read the review over at but didn't realize it was you, congrats ;)