The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011


A review of the album Strict Joy by The Swell Season

The Swell Season - Strict Joy

Review Snapshot:  At times underwhelming and familiar, 'Strict Joy' brings nothing new to the table and deals with much of the same subject matter as The Swell Season's previous albums. While people who were already fans will probably find this album enjoyable it did very little to grab the attention of this reviewer's ears.

The Cluas Verdict? 5 out of 10

Full Review:  Since the success of 2007's 'Once' Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, aka The Swell Season, who both starred in the film and composed the soundtrack, have become highly regarded members of the Irish music scene. Hansard, portraying a struggling busker on Dublin's Grafton Street, and Irglová his love interest and a fellow musician in 'Once', raised their profile considerably and garnered much international attention, particularly in America. Their Oscar winning track from the 'Once' soundtrack, 'Falling Slowly', is a beautiful, memorable song which has received wide radio play. However, their follow-up 'Strict Joy' is quite a different affair altogether.

While 'Strict Joy' can at times be affecting, a lot of the tracks seem more akin to pub songs, to rouse an excitable and inebriated crowd who aren't entirely coherent. While I'm sure this could be classed as a good thing by some people, I strongly doubt that this was the sound Hansard and Irglová were hoping to achieve.
'In These Arms' displays Hansard's usually lowly singing. It has the air of a song that was written instantly in a fit of emotion - and is all the better for it. With Hansard professing "Maybe I was born/To hold you in these arms" with seemingly fragile guitar playing and powerful vocals, it's both thought-provoking and emotive. It's a stand out track on the album, combining both sombre but sweet tones in a way only The Swell Season can.
On the sixth track on the album, 'Paper Cup', Hansard continues the age-old tradition of writers penning pieces to inanimate objects. In such an instance writers tend to offer an interesting insight into their opinion of the object, or how they'd desire to live as simple a life as the object. Instead, Hansard decides to use the word 'paper' as a kind of prefix - "paper saint", "paper plane", "paper bird" not really offering an insight into anything or being particularly engaging. Essentially, 'Paper Cup' appears to be filler without any real purpose or defining composition.
Irglová makes only two distinctively notable vocal appearances as the lead vocalist on 'Fantasy Man' and 'I Have Love You Wrong'. On 'Fantasy Man' Irglová's voice is perfectly suited to the track, she sings passionately with a soothing instrumental accompaniment. At times, 'Fantasy Man' has similarities to Vyvienne Long's style of composition and singing, but still retains a quirky uniqueness which is hard to pigeon-hole. 'I Have Loved You Wrong'  is a tranquil track with Irglová's swirling vocals adding a new scope to the song.  
Though Irglová provides backing vocals on many of the tracks she tends to be overshadowed by Hansard and at times can fade into the background. Such occurrences make this album sound more like a Glen Hansard/The Frames album as opposed to a collaboration between himself and Irglová in The Swell Season.
The Swell Season have been prosperous in creating an album that people who were already fans of theirs will enjoy, but I'm not so confident that they will gain many more new fans as a result of 'Strict Joy'. I can't help but feel that if Irglová had sung more solo tracks, or if she collaborated on a song with Hansard in equal measure the album could really be something amazing and diverse. I'm not convinced by any stretch of the imagination that 'Strict Joy' is a culmination of the the best songs The Swell Season have written since the 'Once' soundtrack. This album offers nothing particularly enthralling or dynamic, and could easily meld together with 'The Swell Season's back catalogue without it being obvious that it's a separate album from their two previous releases.

Aideen O'Flaherty

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