Glen Hansard’s latest album finds him ambling down a singer-songwriter path that’s been well worn over the past 50 years or so. Hansard spent a decade-plus fronting the Frames, then found brief international success with the Swell Season and earned a Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once. Since the Swell Season dissolved, Hansard has leaned into his troubadour tendencies and embarked on a solo career of heartfelt, emotional songs sung with passion and pathos. Between Two Shores has a lot of those kinds of songs, with the added wrinkle of occasional horns and keyboards.
Album opener “Roll on Slow” is a mid-tempo rock and soul workout where Hansard essentially sounds like he’s wearing a Rod Stewart costume. A slinky bass and simple electric guitar riff drive the song over a basic beat. The horn section really pops, accenting the simple riff with short bursts before completely taking over the melody in the song’s final minute. It’s a catchy track, but it feels remarkably lightweight. Hansard’s lyrics aren’t anything notable here, and the song’s simple construction (simple riff, bursts of horn, noisy guitar solo, horn coda) makes it seem more like a “let’s take these horns out for a test drive” warm up than a well-planned piece of songwriting.
The second song, “Why Woman” is much more in line with what Hansard is known for musically. It’s a slow ballad featuring a sad sack Hansard wondering if his woman is going to leave him and pleading with her to stay. The horn section and an organ are on hand again here, filling out the song admirably to give it a bit more musical heft. But it’s Hansard’s singing that sells this song; his character may be a sad sack, but his delivery is plaintive instead of desperate. It makes a big difference in the song’s listenability.
This sort of “Hansard plus” arrangement shows up in a couple of other tracks on the album. “Setting Forth” has a late night vibe, with jazzy piano chords and brushed drums. “Lucky Man” gets a lot of mileage from its soft horn harmonies and organ accompaniment. “Wreckless Heart” is quiet and spare at first, with softly strummed acoustic guitar and Hansard singing about pain and sadness of a broken or soon to be broken relationship. Eventually another guitar and the horn section ease into the song, but their presence is as unobtrusive as possible, at least until an extended soft trumpet solo mid-song.
Regardless of the particular instrumentation, most of the songs on Between Two Shores don’t stray very far from Hansard’s comfort zone. “Movin’ On” may be the record’s most stripped-down song, with just Hansard and his guitar and a quiet organ in the background. Instead of worrying about the end of a relationship, in this one Hansard is celebrating it, but with a tinge of sadness (of course). Elsewhere, the album’s closing trio of “One of Us Will Lose”, “Your Heart’s Not in It”, and “Time Will Be the Healer” explore the end of relationships in some way, each set to different but not too dissimilar variations on folk ballads. Besides “Roll on Slow” the one other exception to this is the low rock of “Wheels on Fire”, which is an angry song about resisting rulers who try to bulldoze over the people. It has some real energy and finds Hansard really belting it out on the song’s bridge, which is a nice contrast to his singing elsewhere on the album.
These ten songs are all very listenable. Hansard is a good performer with a voice that is a charming combination of gritty and tuneful. But Between Two Shores isn’t the kind of album where the individual songs are particularly memorable. There’s nothing here to make the listener sit up and take notice. The horns and organ are nice addition, but other than the specific horn feature of “Roll on Slow”, they don’t do much beyond adding a bit of color. It’s a decent record, even good. But am I going to be able to remember any of these songs in two months without playing them first? Experience says probably not.