- 31 May 12
An Irishman’s ‘New York Year’ yields musical gifts for the folks back home
With The Frames having celebrated their 20th anniversary and the last Swell Season campaign drawing to a close, as 2011 dawned, Glen Hansard felt the time was right to pause for reflection. New York was the chosen setting for a period of what he called repose. This album is the outcome.
Much has been made of Rhythm & Repose being the Dubliner’s first solo effort: in a sense this record has been 20 years in the making. But it is also a record that took root spontaneously. A busking session at Thomas Bartlett’s gig in Le Poisson Rouge, with the house band as backing, sparked the idea. Glen booked a studio, gathered that core of musicians around and took it from there, without any sense that an album would result. But the dynamic was powerful and they went with it. In the end there was no looking back.
Produced by the enigmatic Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and featuring members of Bon Iver, musicians who work variously with Martha Wainwright, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and half of Springsteen’s horn section, this is frequently an ornate work. It also has the feel of something conjured in a creative rush, to capture a fertile moment of shared musicality. Most of all, it is deeply serious, a quality which is well captured in the almost Van Gogh lookalike painted image of Hansard on the front.
His troubled countenance notwithstanding, Glen gets off to a flier. ‘You Will Become’ entices us in superbly: simultaneously sounding like an ominous, low-key threat and pointing to a brighter future, it is Glen Hansard at his best. The contemplative ‘Maybe Not Tonight’ references James Taylor in its mood, as Hansard sets out for Laurel Canyon and ends up tying dreamy George Harrison-esque slide to a sultry groove that moves with a sigh and a shimmy. Next up is ‘Talking With The Wolves’: a match for anything in his revered Frames amd Swell Season back catalogue, it is instantly captivating and possesses a beautifully aching chorus. The propulsive beat, a burbling undercurrent – here sounding like In Rainbows with nods to David Kitt – drives what is a superb performance. It’s a track which is destined to be sung onstage for years to come, no matter what guise Glen is inhabiting.
After that show-stopping opening three, Hansard shifts into alt. country with ‘High Hope’, an almost Band-like construction that dips into frontier religious territory – though from this vantage point it lacks the urgency of what preceeded it.
There is introspection aplenty. “What are we gonna do/ If we lose that fire,” he pleads in ‘What Are We Gonna Do’. “What are we gonna do/ If you start to doubt/ If that fire goes out?” It is a question to which there is seldom an easy answer, as Glen’s sorrowful tone confirms.
On occasion, it is the mid-album sleepers – many replete here with melancholic piano – that become an album’s biggest tunes but in the early days of our acquaintence with Rhythm & Repose it is the zesty ‘Love Don’t Keep Me Waiting’ and the penultimate ‘Philander’ – a brilliantly charged, simmering tune over a ‘Glory Box’ backing – that come closest to matching the power of the immense opening salvo. “I’m always going to love you/ I’m always going to stay,” he promises in the latter, before cutting to the chase. “Here is my philander...”
The album ends with ‘Song of Good Hope’, a track that’s in fact full of anguish and peril. “If we’re gonna make it/ across this river alive,” Hansard sings, “better think like a boat/ and go with the tide.” There is reassurance on the other side, however, albeit of a limited variety as Glen attempts to keep the world’s woes in perspective. “You’ll be fine, babe,” he sings, “It’s not as bad as it seems.”
If that observation seems less than overflowing with optimism, in these dark days, it is a thought worth constantly bearing in mind. After all you don’t come to a Glen Hansard album looking for sugar coated platitudes. Rhythm & Repose is a record not to be taken lightly.