Ex-Frames lead singer and current awards-show golden boy Glen Hansard, who won a Best Original Song Academy Award in 2008 for “Falling Slowly” from his film Once – a film which went on to become a Tony-sweeping (and Hansard-overseen) Broadway musical this year – isn’t the cheeriest guy in the world. The Irish troubadour’s thick, robust brogue provided the soundtrack to a burgeoning romance in Once and appeared in 1991′s celebratory The Commitments, but his first true solo record, Rhythm and Repose, suggests latter-day Iron & Wine by way of Damien Rice – intimate bedroom folk dressed up with minimalist country-rock, all sung in Hansard’s pained baritone, punctuated by stabs of bruising emotion, traversing the rocky terrain of a relationship graveyard.
It looks like a dime-a-dozen venture on paper, granted; there’s literally nothing new about an earthy folkie setting his romantic woes to wax for the length of an album, especially in a post-Bon Iver age. But Hansard cut his teeth busking on the streets of Dublin – as the unnamed protagonist he portrays in Once alludes to – and there’s a marked difference between his voice and the voice of his contemporaries. Namely, it fills in all the open spaces; Hansard’s voice is not the soft, multitracked falsetto of Justin Vernon or the intimate whisper of Sam Beam, though he’s certainly capable of utilizing either, but rather the forceful, emotive, distinctly Irish bellow of Bono or the aforementioned Rice. Dude’s voice practically takes flight, as anybody who’s seen (or listened to) Once can attest to – Hansard may have an Oscar on his shelf for the subdued, naked ballad “Falling Slowly”, but many of Once‘s musical money shots employ tried-and-true whisper-to-a-scream dynamics. Songs like “Say It To Me Now” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” build from their minimalist foundations to frenzied, wild-eyed codas; Hansard’s got the science of the slow-burn down to a T, and when he judiciously deploys it on his solo record, Rhythm and Repose grows wings and soars.
Too judiciously, on occasion; Hansard pens melodies strong and familiar enough to stand on their own legs, but without his tendency to aim for the sky, opening tracks “You Will Become” and “Maybe Not Tonight” are just pretty little fragments with no real emotional stakes. In fact, we don’t get a true moment until “High Hope”, although when it happens, Hansard makes it count, seguing into turbulent album standout “Bird of Sorrow” with ease, both tracks banking on the songwriter’s tendency to shout himself hoarse and batter his reliable old acoustic guitar into submission. It works, because Hansard knows how to kick a pretty ballad in the teeth and make it bleed; say what you will about Glen Hansard, but his ability to whip a song into a frenzy and create a churning, volatile climax is nigh unparalleled. It’s not the only trick up his sleeve – Hansard laces twitchy M. Ward country-rock with sweat and whiskey on “Talking With the Wolves” and “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” to great effect, the latter boasting some of the tightest, sweetest harmonies on the record, and lends an aura of mystery to the descending Fiona Apple piano triads of “Philander” – but the singer excels when employing this dynamic.
But naked emotion remains the order of the day on Rhythm and Repose, and really, it needs to be – Hansard’s lyrics have a lovely, plainspoken way about them, but without his skilled performance, they wouldn’t be able to stand on their own merits. “Maybe Not Tonight” is a clinic all to itself, rhyming “child” with “runnin’ wild” and “August night” with something about a moon shinin’ bright. “Talking With the Wolves” doles out platitudes about love never dying and “High Hope” asks “why must a man lose everything to find out what he wants?”; standard-issue material for songwriters, but Hansard imbues his words with such conviction that it’s difficult to write off out of hand, illustrating effortlessly how raw performance can smooth over most lyrical hiccups.
All told, Rhythm and Repose is a respectable record, warm and intimate and even cathartic at times. It’s imperfect, but strong, like Hansard himself; it feels like the most proper solo debut possible for the Frames and Swell Season vet.