The Swell Season is essentially a duo featuring The Frames' Glen Hansard and Czech musician Markéta Irglová. The pair became known as performers together after being cast in the 2007 indie movie Once, particularly after they won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly" from the Once soundtrack. And their first album since winning the Oscar is much more appealing and cohesive than the lauded movie soundtrack, which was obviously more about the movie than an album in its own right.
Fans of The Frames know Glen Hansard's unique appeal for writing emotional, direct songs that run the gamut between whisper-quiet to blast-loud. The Swell Season functions similarly with perhaps some of the rough edges sanded off. Irglova's voice helps to adds a slight extra sparkle to songs on which she is featured prominently, although as a singer she doesn't have anywhere the time in the spotlight as Hansard.
While there are perils in assuming that an artist's creative work is directly drawn from their day-to-day life's, it's hard not to examine this album without thinking of the real-life relationship between Hansard and Irglova. The pair fell in love around the making of Once and then broke up sometime around making this album. They say they're just good friends now, but the pained romanticism which appears throughout Strict Joy's lyrics paint a rocky landscape behind these songs. "Go on now just leave it, the timing wasn't right," Irglova sings in "Fantasy Man." "And the force that swept us both away was too strong for us to fight." Hansard sings in "The Verb," "I'm tired of fighting she said/Your words just rattle my head/All joy escapes in the dark and I can't make this make sense." Irglova sings plaintively in "I have Loved You Wrong," "Forgive me lover, for I have sinned/For I have done you wrong." Hansard has called this album "an audio diary," so it's perhaps valid to view this album as Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights without the vitriolic recriminations.
One of the hallmarks of Hansard's work, though, has always been his emotional complexity. There always seems to be joy in music about sadness and darkness looms around songs with happy subjects. Much of the album can be summed up on lines from the song "The Rain," which begins "Just before the rain came down the sun came out at last."
Although this album is more cohesive than the Once soundtrack, it's, in some ways, just as fragmented. It feels on various tracks like a Glen Hansard solo album, since nearly all of the songs are written and produced by Hansard and his is the primary voice on most of them. Irglova doesn't even apparently perform on all of the disc's 12 tracks. Nearly all of The Frames also turn up on the album, nudging The Swell Season towards being a glorified Frames offshoot project.
But regardless of personnel, Strict Joy features terrific music and strong, powerful lyrics. It's an enjoyable album that ranks up among the best of this year.