Working in Iceland pays off for the Oscar-winning piano player from Once, who takes a major sonic step forward on her second album.
Markéta Irglová is probably still best known for her starring role in the 2007 film Once and its Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly". By extension, her time with co-star and musical partner Glen Hansard in the band the Swell Season helped bring her worldwide recognition. With the Swell Season on indefinite hiatus, though, both musicians have struck out on their own. While Irglová released her first solo album back in 2011, Hansard, by virtue of his dynamic personality, made a much bigger impact in 2012 with his own solo record and an appearance on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games. Still, Irglová, despite the attention paid to her former partner, has been developing her own sound, and Muna continues that development.
About half of Muna is exactly what one would expect from a Markéta Irglová solo album. Tender piano ballads played at mid-tempo or slower with a sense of longing and lingering disappointment are the order of the day. “Time Immemorial” starts pretty and quiet, accompanied by soft snare drum rolls and subtle bass drum hits. It grows as it goes, adding acoustic guitars, strings, and backing voices before backing off in the middle and swelling again to the end. It’s a perfectly lovely song, but it doesn’t have the kind of melody that sticks with the listener afterwards. Other tracks like “Mary” and “Seasons Change” fit into this same template. “The Leading Bird” is driven by a ¾ piano waltz that gives the song a sense of motion, but otherwise it follows a similar dynamic pattern of quiet, then louder, then backing off to quiet.
Fortunately, those sorts of standard songs are not all that Irglová has to show on Muna. Opener “Point of Creation” is styled like a hymn, complete with chimes, choir, and pipe organ. The lyrics find Irglová contemplating her own existence and searching for answers from God, and it’s very effective. She avoids pushing the song into a more pop-oriented direction, refraining from adding any piano or drums, and lets the song linger, fading out very gradually. On the other hand, the rhythmic “Fortune Teller” leans hard into its eastern European gypsy stylings. Handclaps accompany the shifting beat while the piano plays a compelling modal melody. Irglová’s ethereal voice is put to great use in a wordless mid-song chanting section. Various drums add to the beat while fiddle and banjo drift in and out of the accompaniment.
Lyrically, Irglová regularly returns to her relationship with God, and occasionally the Bible, on the album. “Without a Map” is an unremarkable song musically, but the lyrics contemplate her faith and how difficult it can be for a person to retain that faith in the absence of any overt direction. The song closes with a musical rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, which is unusual and bracing, even if it makes for some awkward passages as Irglová’s choir struggles to fit the lines of the prayer rhythmically into lines of the song. “Gabriel” is one of the musical highlights of the album, and it seems to be literally from the point of view of the archangel. The song begins with a slow introduction accompanied by a host of whale song-style sounds. It picks up partway through with the addition of a trombone choir and pounding percussion. It makes the song sound like a combination of Björk and something from Sigúr Rós frontman Jonsí’s percussion-heavy solo album, and it’s easily the album’s most exciting song.
That assessment turns out to be not too far from the truth, as Muna was recorded in Iceland with a couple dozen Icelandic musicians. Like the Jonsí album, Muna eschews drum kits in favor of a larger variety of percussion, while producer Sturla Mio Thorisson worked as an assistant back on Björk’s vocals-only album Medulla. These influences make a track like “Remember Who You Are” stand out because it fully commits to its unusual percussion accompaniment. Similarly, the full-on ballad “Phoenix” buttresses a strong vocal melody and piano line with percussion and a variety of guitars and banjos to strong effect. Despite the presence of several relatively bland songs, this album stands out for Irglová’s more interesting musical choices, which all pay off in more interesting songs. The end result is that Muna feels like a major sonic step forward for Irglová.