The Swell Season debuts new folk album

By Andrea Mirviss

The folk group the Swell Season was born out of the romance between its two front players, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, but its sophomore album, Strict Joy, is the chronicle of their breakup.

Strict Joy is by no means a typical breakup album.  It does not ask for pity, and it is not chock full of angry rants, but rather is balanced on both sides of the equation, with Hansard and Irglova’s voices balancing each other’s style in a hauntingly beautiful swell of harmonies and lyrics.

The band recieved national acclaim after acting in and featuring their music in the film Once, which won the Academy Award in 2007 for Best Original Song.  The Swell Season is composed of Hansard, Irglova, Colm Mac Iomaire and various other musicians who sometimes pop in on tours and in the studio.

Throughout the whole album, Hansard provides brash and passionate singing and guitar playing that is balanced by Irglova’s haunting voice.  Her twinkling piano chords further offset Hansard’s gruff musicianship.  Their voices are together enveloped in stunning musicality provided by violinist Mac Iomaire, whose striking talent is by far the most interesting part of the album.

The album opens with the catchy Van Morrison-inspired single, Low Rising.  It contains all of the best aspects of the album, such as Hansard’s guitar skills and power-vocals which are mellowed into a folk-rock style by a gentle riff, organ-playing and Irglova’s harmonizing.

The album then progresses through the breakup of Hansard and Irglova with songs like the haunting down-tempo, In These Arms, in which Hansard proclaims, “You were restless / I was somewhere less secure.”  The song contains a placid mixture of melody and violins and a haunting chorus that simply repeats, “Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms,” over and over.

One of the best songs of the album, The Verb, is so catchy it is almost pop-like.  However, it does not quite cross the line because of its contrast between defiant lyrics and incredibly gentle melodies.   The song’s lyrics represent the turning point in their relationship, “I’ll tear my heart out no more / I’ll burn this bridge ‘til its gone,” yet the song remains light in sound as Iomaire weaves magic in the background of the song with the violin.

The album’s slow songs can be a bit tedious at first listen, but they are so well interspersed among the faster songs, and so different from one another, that they do not bore the listener so much as make them excited for the next fast song.

The Swell Season has managed to do something rather unthinkable: to co-write a break-up album with an ex that manages to come together not only as a cohesive, but also stunning album.

Strict Joy was inspired by the poem Strict Care, Strict Joy by James Stephens, in which the narrator discovers that negatives in life can be turned into something beautiful through painting, singing about or writing about them.  The Swell Season has managed to do just that in making their latest album.