The Swell Season have their work cut out for them with their second album, Strict Joy. The duo of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová released their debut effort in 2006 under the name The Swell Season, and have toured using that moniker for the last few years. However, they came to fame starring as musicians falling in love in the 2007 film Once. They even won an Oscar for the song “Falling Slowly”, but were credited under their own names. It’s great to have success, but the tricky part comes in making the general public aware that The Swell Season is “that guy and girl from Once.” On top of all that, the pair have entered into, and fallen out of, a real-life relationship in the interim.
On musical terms, though, Strict Joy succeeds. The duo effectively mix lushly arranged slow ballads that emphasize their voices with more uptempo pop songs that keep the album from becoming staid. The disc opens with “Slow Rising”, a soul-style ballad that works because of Hansard’s urgent vocals. Filled with strings and subtle horn chords underneath a simple groove, this is the kind of song that would come off poorly with a less-capable singer. But Hansard makes it succeed. Second song “Feeling the Pull” is one of the few moments of joy (pun intended) on an album mostly dominated (and understandably so) by crumbling relationship lyrics. The song uses upbeat acoustic guitar, quick moving piano, and cymbal-dominated drum work to pull it off, and Hansard and Irglová’s harmonies are the finishing touch.
Canny instrument choices and good songwriting carry the day on the rest of the album. “The Rain” uses a solo violin to counterpoint Irglová’s piano playing to great effect, and the song has a quiet tension that grows louder as the track goes on, but never offers that big cathartic moment. This is fitting for a song whose refrain says “Okay / I’m not what I promised you I would become.” “The Verb” also uses tension effectively. Despite pretty harmonies from the duo, the song features a rhythm that slides between 6/8 and 2/4 and seems to change the beat accent around as the song goes along. “Love That Conquers” is a sparsely arranged folk song featuring very nice interplay between two guitars and a bass as well as a full song, 60’s-style harmony from the singers.
While Hansard’s powerful voice dominates the album, Irglová gets in two lead songs of her own. “Fantasy Man” is a wistful song about perception versus reality. With lyrics like “The force that swept us both away / was too strong for us to fight,” the track seems to be speaking directly about the experience of the couple. “I Have Loved You Wrong” is couched as an apology to a lover over quiet piano chords and a sparse band arrangement. It’s one of the album’s most emotional songs, and probably its prettiest as well. The disc closes with “Back Broke”, which may as well be Hansard’s response. It’s quiet and sad, with lyrics that talk about being near someone but not able to have them.
The way fiction, film, music, and reality have blurred for The Swell Season is an interesting case, but in the age of YouTube and endless reality TV, it doesn’t even seem all that unique anymore. Hansard and Irglová’s somewhat public relationship gives the songs a bit more weight. You usually don’t get both sides of the story when a musician talks about a deteriorating romance in song. But all of this melancholy wouldn’t work if the music wasn’t so well-presented. And not all of it does, at least not completely. A few tracks in the middle of the album drag a bit, but for the most part Strict Joy is a step forward for the band. These songs aren’t breaking any new ground, but they’re well written and enjoyable, and the background makes them sort of fascinating, too.