Saturday, March 26, 2016

Glen Hansard - Didn't He Ramble

Glen Hansard is a songwriter who will always have a special place in my heart. Once is one of my favorite movies, and the resulting soundtrack was an album I had in near-constant rotation during the fall of my junior year of high school (along with other autumn 2007 releases, like Jimmy Eat World's Chase This Light and Matt Nathanson's Some Mad Hope). Rhythm & Repose, meanwhile—Hansard's 2012 solo debut—was the first album I reviewed after becoming a staff member here at AbsolutePunk. Three-plus years, hundreds of significant life events, and some 180 reviews later, here I am delving into Hansard's sophomore solo LP, a comfortable wheelhouse disc called Didn't He Ramble. All I can say is it's a pleasure to be writing about one of my heroes again.

Rhythm & Repose was a great record because it channeled all of Hansard's emotion surrounding a breakup (specifically, the breakup with girlfriend, bandmate, and Once co-star Marketa Irglova) into a vulnerable, heart-wrenching, but ultimately resilient set of songs. It was a primarily acoustic set of songs, featuring both whisper-silent ballads and big, hair-raising climaxes. The latter is something that Hansard has always been better at than most, thanks to a soaring Irish tenor capable of conveying huge reserves of genuine emotion. But while Hansard played the troubadour on that record—and quite literally in Once—he is also a musical chameleon, capable of going well beyond the boundaries of acoustic folk music. See Hansard's work with Irish rock band The Frames if you need to be convinced of his skills as a frontman and bandleader. Compared to Rhythm & Repose, Didn't He Ramble is a more colorful, uplifting, versatile, and full-bodied set of songs, a record that seems to revisit just about every stage of Hansard's impressive 25-year career.

In 2013, Hansard released an EP called Drive All Night. The title track was a cover of an underrated Springsteen deep cut from 1980's The River, a slow-burn ballad that is perhaps second only to "Jungleland" in terms of long, sustained crescendo (and in terms of emotive Clarence Clemons sax solos). For his version of the song, Hansard teamed up with both Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (on backing vocals) and saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence and honorary member of the E Street Band since his uncle's passing in 2011. The recording continued a trend that had started on Rhythm & Repose, where Hansard had employed "half of Springsteen's horn section" to flesh out a few of the livelier tracks. Didn't He Ramble may or may not include any current or former Springsteen collaborators, but is Hansard's most E Street-esque record yet, with several songs—specifically the graduation-ready anthem "Winning Streak"—that play as dead ringers for post-millennial Bruce tunes. This is a very good thing.

The first four tracks on Didn't He Ramble—"Grace Beneath the Pines," "Wedding Ring," Winning Streak," and "Her Mercy"—match up with what we've come to expect from Hansard since his appearance in Once. "Her Mercy" might be the highlight of the disk, another E Street-style tune that starts with a fairly standard guitar-bass-drums groove, but adds gospel choirs and big, bombastic horns in the second half for a thrilling climax. It's also one of the few times on Didn't He Ramble where Hansard really lets loose, allowing his voice to crackle on the cathartic high notes in a way that recalls "Say it to Me Now," the song from the opening scene of Once, or "High Hope," one of the undisputed highlights from Rhythm & Repose. "Grace Beneath the Pines," meanwhile, continues Hansard's tradition of starting his albums out in pensive fashion, re-introducing the Irish songwriter with little more than a tranquil organ line to accompany his voice.

After the record's introduction, though, Didn't He Ramble steers away from Hansard's more recent folk-rock sound, and delves into his Irish roots. The most obvious example is "McCormack's Wall," a piano-led folk song that features a traditional Irish jig—played on doubled-up fiddles—in its second half. The brassy "Lowly Deserter" also has elements of traditional Irish folk music, though it simultaneously recalls some of the jazzier, funkier material that Iron & Wine explored on 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean. (Iron & Wine's Sam Beam actually appears on this album, too.) And the album's closing track, the contemplative "Stay the Road," feels like the kind of Dublin street performer folk that Hansard's character was playing in Once.

Ultimately, though, regardless of whether Hansard is cribbing moves from his own country's heritage, or from one of the biggest rock stars in American history, he manages to make it all his own thanks to the quality of his songwriting and the passion behind his performances. Songs like "My Little Ruin" could read as elegant poetry even on paper ("Come on my little sorrow, won't you sing yourself a different song?/The melody that made you is now a worn out sing along/Everybody's looking at you, but I can't stand to watch/ I've seen this scene come and go too much" goes the stunning first verse), but become even more powerful when he sings them. Something about the quiet desperation in Hansard's voice could sell even shoddy material.

The soothing "Paying My Way" is just as effective. The narrator here seems plucked, again, from the center of a Springsteen song: he doesn’t have much money and his job isn't glamorous ("There's not much joy in the work unless you're born to do it, they say," he notes matter-of-factly in the verse), but his reward is the person he loves, waiting for him at home at the end of a hard day ("Well there's not much change in the weather on this long walk home to you in the rain"). The song—and indeed, the album as a whole—is a reminder that the best folk artists don't just write great lyrics and sing them, but they also seem to have truly lived them. Sure, there are songs on this record that I don't love: "Just to Be the One," for example, is just okay, while "Wedding Ring" feels like a less effective rewrite of the last album's splendid "Maybe Not Tonight." But even in his least effective moments, though, it's impossible to ever doubt Hansard's honesty or conviction, and that level of trust he's earned with his listeners is what makes him one of the best songwriters living.

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