Irish musician Glen Hansard and Czech musician Marketa Irglova gained worldwide fame in 2007 when Once, their charming gem of a movie, started showing up on critic's lists of the best films of the year. The tiny independent film's feelgood success story then soared to new levels when the pair won the Oscar in 2008 for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly". Once told the story of two struggling musicians in Ireland who fall in love, which mirrored what was happening in real life between Hansard and Irglova, who released their first album as The Swell Season in 2006 (Hansard has also fronted the relatively unknown Irish band The Frames since 1990).
The Oscar win and the Once soundtrack's significant commercial achievements amped up the anticipation and expectations from the duo's follow-up, which now finds Hansard and Irglova no longer a couple after a two year relationship. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the lyrics are relationship-centric, offering viewpoints from each on where things went wrong. It's an interesting and unique dynamic, this situation the pair now find themselves in, having to navigate the delicate waters of a dissolved romantic partnership while trying to cultivate and maintain a healthy professional one.
The Swell Season's sound pulls heavily from the folk and soul sounds of the 70's - Van Morrison is the most obvious influence, particularly on smooth opener "Low Rising". Numerous tracks start off with just a simple acoustic guitar and vocals, eventually adding a tasteful mix of sonic elements like horns, strings, piano, bells, and various percussive flavourings that crescendo into something very different from where the song started. "In These Arms" follows that formula to a certain degree, but gets bogged down by the bare simplicity of the intro and verse sections, which only sound that much more deficient when the lush choruses kick in. This track and "Back Broke" feature more prominent examples of Hansard's occasionally off-key singing, which is an intentional artistic choice, but not necessarily a wise one. "Feeling The Pull" is a jaunty, rare upbeat song on an album loaded with downers (it does, after all, musically chronicle the couple's break up). The multiple tracks of acoustic guitars sound exceptional, displayed front and centre in the sound mix with the percussive element from the strumming of the strings acting almost as an entirely separate percussive addition. "I Have Loved You Wrong" is pretty much the complete opposite of "Feeling The Pull", as Irglova assumes lead vocals for a stark and haunting ode to self-doubt, rooted by a repetitive fretless bass line and punctuated by well-timed cymbal crashes.
Strict Joy has its share of bright spots - unfortunately, the excess of not just inferior, but downright terrible songs diminishes their glow. "Fantasy Man", Irglova's other lead vocal turn, is a meandering mess. "Paper Cup" and "Love That Conquers" are similarly leaden in their delivery, with the former redeemed somewhat by some excellent classical guitar work.
Highlights: "Low Rising", "Feeling The Pull", "I Have Loved You Wrong"
Lowlights: "Fantasy Man", "Paper Cup", "The Verb"