Glen Hansard is an Oscar-winning songwriter, actor, lead singer of the Frames, half of the Swell Season and inspiration for Once, this season’s top Broadway musical. He’s also one hell of a downer.
This is nothing new. Years before Hansard’s Academy Awards victory, a friend invited me to see the Frames headline the Abbey Pub in Chicago. The performance was an energetic, soulful, Irish revival; imagine U2′s stadium show compressed into a small church. I left the venue soaked to the bone and was convinced I had caught the next “biggest band on Earth” moments before their ascension. But at that point, the Frames had been around for nearly a decade, and it would be nearly a decade more before Hansard found a global audience without them.
While early Frames albums captured their live spark, subsequents discs kept getting darker, quieter and more depressing. When Once took over the world, you would think success and adoration could cheer the fella up. But alas, part of the charm of the film was how the two characters expressed their affection through song and never hooked up. When Hansard and a dramatically younger Marketa Irglova started dating in real life, it felt kinda creepy. Surprisingly, the duo appeared to survive the romantic break-up with a very strong second album, 2009′s Strict Joy. But clearly, all these years later, Hansard still isn’t over it.
Rhythm and Repose is a great EP trapped inside very sad LP. The title says it all. Repose means the absence of movement. The CD packs all the joy of having your newly dumped best friend crying on your couch for an hour. Whereas Adele, Amy Winehouse and Beck turned heartbreak into beautiful, universal songs about relationships, the lyrics in Hansard’s songs are so specific, they only appear to be about “that” relationship.
On “You Will Become,” with Irglova backing him up (or backing away) on vocals, Hansard sings “We talked about talk of a gold ring… and we talked about everything til we laughed about it.” It’s a quaint, modest start.
“Maybe Not Tonight’s” slide guitar, soft strings and FM country radio croon would have sounded awesome on Glen Campbell’s recent “Ghost on the Canvas.” It’s very out of place here.
“Talking With The Wolves” has promise. Kicky electric drums and luscious vocals by Hannah Cohen create a genuine pop song — and an upbeat one at that! Hansard sounds great duetting with someone new, but sadly, it’s a one-song stand. Irglova will soon return.
“High Hope” carries a delightful rhythm, but repose dominates the lyrics: “Why must a man lose everything to find out what he wants?” It builds to a euphoric chorus that will slay in concert. This is the most Frames-ish song on the disc.
“Bird of Sorrow” brings Hansard some release. First, he lifts himself up: “Well I’m calling to you please, get off the floor. A good heart will find you again… Come on, we’ve got to get out, get out of this mess we’ve made.” It slowly builds to a cathartic chorus before receding to a whisper.
“The Storm: It’s Coming” foretells where the rest of this album is headed. “There’s doubt on every face, and there’s a liar on the stage,” Hansard over-emotes. The string section has no idea what to do, so they screech and sputter. Absolutely depressing.
“Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” is even odder. The Frames love to seamlessly segue classics like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Willy Wonka’s “Land of Pure Imagination” into their concert performances. This one could easily become Michael McDonald’s version of Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” without you ever realizing the switch.
“What Are We Gonna Do” brings Irglova back for a breathtaking, if not awkward, reprise. Imagine wiretapping a 3:00 AM phone call between these exes. He pleads, “I don’t want to lose you to some bullshit hurt that could have been helped.” She replies, “I don’t wanna change you, but you’re a long long way from the path you came.” They duet: “What are we gonna do, if we lose that fire?” Their relationship is their private business. As for another strong Swell Season record, this beautiful song gives hope they’ll be back.
“Races” is the denial song. Hansard sings, “Cause I never left you, and you never let me go.” Since this album is so intimate, I feel like I need to deliver some tough love. I hold my iPod close and say: “Wake up Glen! She chose to tour as a back-up vocalist for Bon Iver instead of spending another day as a headliner with you!”
“Philander” is the anger song. It begins with one of those self-indulgent “Mozart off the rails” piano spasms. Then it gets creepy. “I’ll star you in my movie, I’m making it now, so come on you little actor, don’t let me down Philander.” If this song is directed at Irglova, I may have predicted an imminent reunion too soon. To make matters worse, the video captures the thrill of watching a drunk rearrange his furniture:
On set closer “Song of Good Hope,” Hansard always feels a heartbeat away from launching into Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You.” By this time I’m over it. It’s sad to see an artist who I love wallow about in his own crapulence (to borrow the phrase from C. Montgomery Burns), and it’s even sadder to hear the mixed results. Even the album cover artwork looks like a mug shot.
While I wish there was more rhythm than repose on this album, it still could have succeeded without any of Hansard’s trademark anthems. Frames classics like “Lay Me Down,” “Star Star” and “What Happens When the Heart Just Stops” show how a ballad can pack just as big of a punch. Here’s hoping the tour lifts his spirits and these songs sung live can exorcise the demons that haunt him.
Rhythm and Repose and its ala carte singles are available at Amazon.