Glen Hansard has built a career, now 25 years strong, on struggle. His impassioned songs mostly veer between the exhausting struggle to make it professionally (“Pavement Tune”) and the numbing struggle to keep the affections of a romantic partner (“What Happens When the Heart Just Stops”). The musicians surrounding him doesn’t matter. Pick up any Frames or Swell Season record, or his first solo release, 2012’s Rhythm and Repose, to find him chipping away at those two pillars.
Now at 45, with “Academy Award-winner” tagged along with his name like a medical degree and packing in fervent supporters at majestic venues across the globe, that youthful thirst to prove oneself (and all the doubt that accompanies it) serves him no more. He’s even eschewed the role of the tortured unrequited lover on his second solo outing.
Instead, Didn’t He Ramble offers up prayers to friends and family — and not with mere platitudes, but surges of white-hot honesty delivered in Hansard’s spoonful of sugar timbre. In many ways, these 10 tracks serve as spiritual companions to “Song of Good Hope”, the world’s most heartrending pep talk that closes out Rhythm and Repose. Written for the late brother of this sophomore solo outing’s co-producer, Thomas Bartlett, the tune manages to convey good will, hope, and pleading, while also coping with the inevitable.
This album keenly understands a favorite expression of “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert’s mother: “What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know your life is going to break your heart.” Fittingly, Hansard, a born and bred Dubliner, called Didn’t He Ramble the hardest record to make, in an interview with Q Magazine. His hard-won wisdom allows him to recognize that raging against bloodthirsty record executives and unfaithful women — no matter how satisfying — takes less grace than calling someone home.
Piano and mandolin-drenched first single “Winning Streak” skips along casually and loosely in the spirit of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. But this is more than just throwing an arm around a troubled pal; this is a handwritten letter you’d keep folded up in your pocket to take out and read over and over until it begins to tear at the creases, the text allowing you to muster up strength and courage in rough times. Honeyed guest vocals by Sam Amidon and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam further cement the song’s “just a couple of guys trading verses around Levon Helm’s kitchen” vibe.
“Her Mercy” serves as a horn-dusted road map to letting go. A staple of Hansard’s live shows for the last couple of years, the song has morphed from dipping a toe into the waters of gospel to a full-on Sunday revival, Hansard a welcome and comforting presence at the pulpit. A swaying choir, curiously kept an arms-length away, buoys the sermon. The album’s standout track, “Lowly Deserter”, showed up on YouTube last year with just Hansard and touring trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Even stripped down, the song evoked a ripe New Orleans sensibility. The album version finds Hansard leading a second line parade in Dr. John’s honor.
Despite being recorded in various locales (New York, Dublin, Wilco’s The Loft in Chicago, and the Frames’ longtime haunt, Black Box Studio in France, with former bandmate Dave Odlum), the album remains cohesive and builds on the workshopping Hansard undertook while on a small tour last winter. He’s often lamented the difficulty of capturing his rambunctious stage energy in the studio — no doubt there’s still room for these pieces to blossom in a live setting, especially weaker tracks like the shuffling blues wannabe “Wedding Ring”. While it might not capture his energy, Didn’t He Ramble fully illustrates Hansard’s deep empathy.
The songwriter says he really “dug deep” for these songs, chasing specific ideas instead of settling for something with a pretty sound. “My Little Ruin”, which reaches out to a friend prone to self-sabotage, manages to check off both boxes. Hansard starts off gently, coaxing the recluse away from a poisonous crowd via a soft guitar pitter-pattering like raindrops against a window. The backing band swells to match Hansard’s growing frustration at his friend’s careless misuse of talent before expanding and extending an olive branch. In contrast, album opener “Grace Beneath the Pines” solemnly turns inward, Hansard focusing on overcoming his own shortcomings. It maintains a hymn-like momentum, save for a small break when Hansard lets loose with his trademark vein-bulging wail: “I’ll get through this.” At this point in his career, he doesn’t need to convince us.
Essential Tracks: “Lowly Deserter”, “Winning Streak”