On “This Right Here”, the closing track off Markéta Irglová’s sophomore album, Muna, she sings, “Anything that I could say right now/ Would only be a pale reflection of what I feel.” In a way, that sentiment of holding back has summed up the 26-year-old Czech-born pianist and songwriter’s career thus far. As half of The Swell Season, a folk project with The Frames’ Glen Hansard, who’s best known for starring in and providing Oscar-winning music for the indie film Once, Irglová was often relegated to being the introspective counterpoint to Hansard’s powerful voice and magnetic stage presence.
While she undoubtedly held her own, providing some of the duo’s best songs, like “The Hill” and “If You Want Me”, there was always a sense that there was untapped potential in the young songwriter, ideas she couldn’t express in the context of a duo. In 2011, following the start of Swell Season’s still-ongoing hiatus, the breakdown of her romantic relationship with Hansard, and her relocation from Dublin to New York City, Irglová broke out with her solo debut, Anar. Named after the Farsi word for “pomegranate,” it was a promising debut, but at times suffered from the feeling that it didn’t have an anchor; the majority of its songs floated listlessly in a quiet, ethereal headspace. With Muna, her gorgeous follow-up, she largely tightens up her songwriting and takes considerable risks that sometimes fail, making it the clearest and most ambitious picture of her as an artist yet.
Irglová is now married and a new mother living in Iceland, and Muna‘s 11 songs combine the country’s spritely, cinematic atmospherics with her lush piano and lilting, delicate soprano. She surrounds herself with past collaborators like Frames (and The Swell Season) guitarist Rob Bochnick, Iranian daf player and vocalist Aida Shahghasemi, and her husband and producer/engineer Sturla Mio Thorisson, along with a cast of new players including her younger sister Zuzi on backing vocals. These songs are always pretty, especially offerings like “The Leading Bird”, which features Irglová cooing over a wistful blend of cascading piano chords, strings, and bristling percussion. This track, coupled with “This Right Here”, rival and arguably best any of her Swell Season efforts.
However, not all of the record delivers on the momentum of those highlights. Muna kicks off with a relative whimper on opener “Point of Creation”, which begins with what sounds like a church processional complete with chanting, bells tolling in the distance, and organ-induced ambiance. There’s some not-too-subtle spiritual imagery in the lyrics, and Irglová puzzlingly lists off the colors of the rainbow.
Another misstep comes with “Fortune Teller”, which features a midsection dominated by a clunky and tonally off chant courtesy of Shahghasemi. Though the two had collaborated on Irglová’s debut for the Farsi-language traditional cover “Dokhtar Goochani”, that track fit within the album as a cohesive unit. Here, the Middle Eastern tones are more jarring, especially considering the permeating Icelandic influences. From there, the album’s songs either enchant or meander, but never to the extremes of its two best songs and its two worst.
For all of its beauty, Muna‘s 51 minutes could be cut down. There are moments in its middle that blend together, like experiments that weren’t properly executed. That said, with the fantastic and intricate highs of this album, Irglová has proven herself as a solo artist. Maybe her next effort will totally eclipse her early days in The Swell Season.
Essential Tracks: “The Leading Bird”, “This Right Here”