Music: Rhythm and Rest: Glen Hansard moves beyond Once

Glen Hansard’s new album, Rhythm and Repose

Glen Hansard is trying to separate himself from the massive success of Once. The former front man for the Frames (one person once said that “U2 gets all the fame but the Frames have all the soul”), Hansard found extraordinary success with the indie movie, Once, for which he and his partner, Marketa Irglova, garnered an Academy Award for Best Song.

But this was not his first foray into film. As a much younger man, Hansard was chosen by Alan Parker to play the guitarist in The Commitments–a former busker who ended up almost making it with Jimmy Rabbit’s Dublin Soul band. He was one of the more likeable lads in the band and as things worked out in the film his character ended up back on the Dublin streets busking.

Hansard as Outspan Foster in The Commitments

Fast forward 15 years and Hansard is again playing a busker in the Dublin streets, and this time he strikes gold. The on-screen (and purported off-screen) chemistry between him and Marketa Irglova found a wide audience around the world.  The music (much of it from the Frames’ repertoire) was memorable, the story was charming, and the ending was so far from a typical Hollywood ending that it was a refreshing success. And if people doubted Hansard and Irglova’s sincerity, their acceptance speech at the Oscars was one of the finest moments in what is usually an orgy of narcissism and self-aggrandizement.

When the music played to whisk Hansard off the stage, the emcee-Jon Stewart–stepped in and made the audience listen to what Irglova had to say.  Here is both of their “thank you speeches”–a tribute to independent artists and dreamers everywhere:

So Hansard and Irglova took advantage of the momentum and began a whirlwind concert tour bringing the music of Once to audiences live and then teamed up in a new band called The Swell Season, releasing a double album.

Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard

Yet Once was not going to let go.  In 2011, the film was turned into a Broadway musical and in 2012 it won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

By then, Hansard and Irglova’s partnership had severed and Hansard moved to New York to work on a solo gig.

And on June 19th, his new album Rhythm and Rest hit the stores.  If you liked the music from Once and you like the music of the Frames, you will very much like this.

On Rhythm and Rest, Hansard does what he does best.  He writes personal,  soulful songs, often begins them with a single, simple instrument and then builds to a painful wail or a embracing chorus.  The song “High Hope” is typical–Hansard’s voice accompanied by his acoustic guitar and piano begins the tune and then builds with a rousing choral section on the choruses. The choral accompaniment is very similar to the styling of some of Van Morrison’s productions. “The Song of Good Hope” (do you detect a theme here?) starts the same way–if even more stark at the beginning being fortified not by choral voices but by strings.  It is the last song of the album and like all of Hansard’s songs it is bittersweet.

The song “Philander” (and the video) straddles loneliness and the determination to persevere, while “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting,” reveals more resilience in human relations.  At times in “Philander,” Hansard’s voice–which I find expressive AND beautiful–veers towards the articulation of Tom Waits. It is amusing to find this Dublin street performer, unwittingly channeling the American blues, saloon singer.  While I very much like the song “Maybe Not Tonight” which begins with a simple guitar arpeggio, it reminds me an awful lot of the old Crazy Horse tune, “I Don’t Want to Think About It.”  It’s now all I hear when I listen.

My personal favorites are “The Storm is Coming” and “You will Become.” The first song on the album, “You Will Become” has a simple Leonard Cohen-like guitar, a haunting cello and a faint penny-whistle, before crescendo-ing with tinkling piano.  And the music perfectly complements the heart-breaking lyrics. “The Storm is Coming” features a single piano and Hansard’s voice in all its pain, its anticipation of the future, and its acceptance.

Hansard’s lyrics are very personal and his voice is perfectly suited for this. As he bemoans romantic fates, upcoming storms, lost chances, his voice soulfully captures the very essence of his words. Here is the video for “Philander”:

“Before the World was Made”

“The Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan … manages to raise some interesting and subtle concerns about …notions relating to the question of what’s really bad about death, including this one: Why do we regard no longer existing (post-mortem nonexistence) as worse than not having existed before our births (prenatal nonexistence)? And are we wrong to do so?” 

“The Opinionator,” New York Times, May 16, 2012.

I love this question.  I have thought of it before, and it gives me comfort. For it makes perfect sense to me.  I wonder if Mr. Kagan is aware of the Yeats’ poem, “Before the World was Made.”  I would imagine he is. I know I thought of it right away when I read the article.

    Before the World was Made

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

For here, Yeats too is looking at what Kagan calls “prenatal nonexistence”–though Yeats prefers to think of it as “prenatal existence.”

Now Yeats is working in a spiritual cosmology quite different from that which the Yale philosopher is dealing with.  Yeats was always susceptible to spirituality and spiritualism…mysticism and the occult.  (Adrienne Rich famously called him a “table-rattling fascist.” Click here for Evan Boland’s essays on literary antagonisms.) Nevertheless, he was very much interested in concepts of a soul. He believed–through a complicated mythology of his own making, explicated in his book The Vision–in an individual, social, and civilization-wide reincarnation or continuance of the soul.  And so through this series of Yeatsian cycles we have it: a “pre-natal” AND “post-mortem” existence, as the philosopher says.

Maude Gonne

And yet, there is also something else going on in the poem that is not as deep, not as cosmic, not as “philosophical.” This is not a cosmic dance taking place in front of the mirror.  It is that old familiar dance of seduction and romance.  For who is the speaker sitting in front of her vanity? Has Yeats returned to musings on his old beloved Maude Gonne? Is he thinking of her daughter–to whom he once proposed having been rejected for the umpteenth time by Gonne? The poem was published in 1933 when Yeats was 68 years old.  The following year Yeats had the Steinach operation performed–a procedure of inserting animal glands into the body in order to increase testosterone production. Good old Yeats–he was now 68–was not giving up on this existence…and at this time was carrying on several romantic affairs with much younger women.

The poem itself appeared in the collection, The Winding Stair, and was one of twelve poems included in a section called “A Woman Young and Old.”  If the speaker is a woman where does she fit in that continuum?  Is this a young woman relatively new at the game?  Or a more experienced woman, who could look on any man “as though on my beloved”?

And what is it she would have him love?  What existed “before the world was made”?  For the philosopher Kagan, the answer is nothing.  For Yeats it is something large, something essential.

As an aside, I knew that Van Morrison had recorded a song version of the poem.  I also knew that Mike Scott and the Waterboys had just put out an album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, on which the poem appeard. But I just learned that Carla Bruni–the former first lady of France–had also recorded the song.  I don’t know why, but I find that amusing.  Anyway,  here’s Van the Man’s performance of Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made.”