The Swell Season – [Album]

Monday, 26 October 2009

Some sounds are just universally comforting. Whether it's a melody that reminds a listener of an easier time or it's a chord progression that invokes feelings of nostalgia, there are some songs that will cause a listener to heave a sigh of relief involuntarily as muscles begin to loosen and relax. Songs like this dot the catalogues of lots of singers – Van Morrison has “Rcok Your Gypsy Soul,” Ben Harper has “Diamonds On The Inside” and Billy Joel  has “The Piano Man” – but seldom does it happen that an entire album is comprised of this sort of fare. That's exactly the case with The Swell Season's follow-up to their wildly popular Once motion picture soundtrack though – on Strict Joy, singers Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova tap into a universal appeal that everyone (but particularly anyone that has ever been heartbroken or lonely) will have tremendous difficulty turning away from.

In the case of Strict Joy, the true magic happens in the little things; love and love lost are the central themes and those are far from uncommon in pop, but the painstaking examination of the minutiae of love and heartache (like used paper cups and paper plates and the memories that come with using them on a perfect day in “Paper Cups”) are the bits that anyone who hears them will know well but won't dare admit to. It's a personal rumination normally, but those sorts of moments are the ones that The Swell Season lays at its listeners'  feet for approval.

The secret of The Swell Season's success on Strict Joy lies in the emotional dichotomy that Hansard and Irglova draw between themselves through songs like “Low Rising,” “Feeling The Pull,” “Fantasy Man” and “High Horses” and, while it might be regarded as two sides of the same coin, the combination is infectious and engaging here; through those songs (and much of the rest of the rest of the record), Hansard steadfastly represents the hope and drive in every man (it's most evident in the recurring “I want”s of “Feeling The Pull”) that everything will turn out right in the end while Irglova's stoic, spotless sybillance (check “Fantasy Man”) represents the “what if it doesn't” worry and heartache. Conspicuously, while both voices do (only occasionally) appear together to harmonize, each of Strict Joy's twelve tracks is dominated by one side or the other to paint the proceedings like a conversation – complete with ups, downs, triumphs, tribulations, heartache and hope. It's a beautiful story and the way it's told here seems geared to hang up in any listener's mind, as the same sort of sequence tends to in a movie.

That story presents the singers as worlds apart – geographically in the beginning, emotionally by the end, whether they're singing together or not – every step of the way though. In the early playing of the record, the hope is obviously prevailing as warm strains of subdued R&B/folk back Hansard outlining the romance and his almost wistful posturing for his beloved (“Low Rising,” “Feeling The Pull”) and winning the early emotional debate handily over. It's sweet and gentle  and wonderful at once – the perfect presentation of hope and the bright outlook of it.

That romance is doomed to fail though. Even as early as “The Rain” and “Fantasy Man,” the tremors of Irglova's misgiving and insecurity color the proceedings with Joni Mitchell-style, “I'm inches away from tears and ache for you, but I'm not sure I can hold out” folk. In that moment, a chill passes through listeners as frost touches the proceedings and never really warms again. Hansard feels it in the dour introspection of “Paper Cups” and, by “The Verb,” both singers find themselves locked together in a state of emotional agony; neither wants to walk away, but it's getting progressively harder to hold onto each other (“I'm tired of fighting” is the kiss with a fist that hits listeners and hooks them to hang on to see how it all turns out) and the worry has overtaken the music completely. “I Have Loved You Wrong” finds Irglova begging forgiveness and whispering sweet promises that get resolved in “Love That Conquers” but, even then, the verdict is still out on whether the hope will endure. Wounded, worried and defensive, Hansard sums up the injury with knee-buckling candor in “Two Tongues” (two strikes and you're out”) and lets listeners in on the secret that there's no going back for the lovers.

That hint makes the fact that the closing denouement is called “Back Broke” telling and heartbreaking in its own way; there's no redemption, the lovers have breached the point of no return and all that's left are the whispers of regret expressed by both singers (“Don't give me false hope”).

The incredible thing about Strict Joy is just how engaging it can be for the right kind of listener. Played end-to-end (and you will if you pick it up, repeatedly) the record is a great, expressive drama played out dirty – with loose ends left hanging everywhere – and with no one really filled up in the end. In many ways, it's a comfort for some listeners to hear “they aren't the only ones” left to feel this way because the performers feel it too, and the romance in the end leaves the album just open enough for The Swell Season to pick up where they left off on their follow-up. That seeming open end is what ensures those listeners that pick up Strict Joy will hang around for whatever comes next; everyone wants to see love conquer all and the good guys win, but The Swell Season is only halfway there in the end of Strict Joy. While it's a solid album, it's likely that the story will only be over when death parts the singers.



The Swell Season – “Low Rising” – Strict Joy


Strict Joy
comes out on ANTI– Records on October 27, 2009. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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