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Review: The Swell Season – Strict Joy

main-150The vulnerable duo that mesmerized us two years ago is back with a new release. I was initially afraid that these songs would not be able to live up to the Once soundtrack and the emotional connection of that film, but Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova quickly put those fears to rest. In fact, Strict Joy may even have the potential to be stronger, as these songs stand on their own without requiring the familiarity of an indie film plotline for enhanced appreciation.

Despite the optimistic title, there is a lot of the melancholic tone expressed in their original material, but this is a sadness infinitely richer than the pines and whines of the jilted radio pop star. Much of the lyrics are not so much about loss as they are about the struggles and trials that accompany a serious relationship worth pursuing. On “Two Tongues,” Hansard’s guitar strums a simple ballad in the vein of classic Snow Patrol while he delicately declares, “You’re so hard to reach / And impossible to really read / When you’re talking with two tongues in your mouth.” In “The Rain,” he admits, “I know we’re not where I promised you we’d be by now / But maybe it’s question of who’d want it anyhow.”

Irglova is unfortunately limited to background vocals on most tracks, although she occasionally comes to the forefront. She quivers a beautiful confession on “I Have Loved You Wrong,” pulled along by a lazy Death Cabby bass line until Hansard joins her on the delicious extended outro.

It’s not all sweat and tears, though, and as the guitar and piano weave their way through the album, they often break into Sufjan-like moments of joy. “Feeling the Pull” is a bouncy ride, and “Love That Conquers” is a 5/4 burst of delight. The production is solid, as the rest of the band provides subtle support while allowing Hansard and Irglova to highlight their instruments and vocals. The closing song reveals that redemption springs from the pain: “Back broke and dancing, cause you’re here beside me…

If you adored Once, you will adore this album, too, and if you missed them before, this album can still serve as a beautiful introduction to their gift. The adorable couple may have broken off their romantic relationship, but if any of that awkwardness seeped into their music, it only made it stronger. They’ve given us another masterpiece to identify with our heartache, encourage us in our pursuit, and remind us that real love, while difficult, is worth it in the end.

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