There is the sense in the work of Glen Hansard, known to some as frontman for the Frames, and others as half of the Oscar-winning duo the Swell Season, that you are experiencing songs well crafted, things felt and worked for. Here on his second solo album, Hansard seems to have dug up songs from the Irish soil.
"McCormack's Wall" comes off like a 19th-century folk song. Songs like "Winning Streak" and "Her Mercy" are built in the shape of prayers or psalms, and "Lowly Deserter" comes across as an old-timey Appalachian stomp.
Whether amid blasting horns or among high-profile guests (including Sam Beam from Iron & Wine), Hansard's latest is another showcase of his songwriting, and allows his voice to shine.
Below, the Academy Award-winning songwriter breaks down each track on his new album.
'Grace Beneath the Pines'
"Songs ... just show up when they want, they don't keep any appointments. They tend to come in the middle of chaos. I was at a festival in Austria, and I was trying to avoid the main stage because I wasn't enjoying the music at all. And I ran off into the forest and was kind of writing the lyric for that song. So 'grace beneath the pines' — that's where that line came from.
"You know that lovely thing that happens to you when you turn 40, where you sort of learn how to say no, to say I'm not interested in that? The song is about taking a step back. And there was an opportunity to write some songs for Mavis Staples in the last couple of years, and it was one of the songs I developed thinking of Mavis. Singing the songs in my head through her character helped me to get to it, as I got out of the way."
"Simply a song about a guy who loves his girl but she's crazy and all his friends don't love her. His whole thing is: 'If I marry her, it might calm her down a bit.'"
"This started off as 'Losing Streak.' It was a song to a friend, someone I was kind of angry with. I decided it didn't feel right when I sang it. You have to own a song. So I reversed the lyric, and made it into 'Winning Streak' and I made it a song of encouragement to my friend. The irony was I was able to own it much more. The song became a very positive affirmation of friendship, and like — listen, we're here for you, I'm here for you.
"'Winning Streak' is a blessing, sort of one of those 'May the Road Rise With You,' one of those Irish blessings."
"One of those songs that came complete. Such a gift when they do. I was reading the Leonard Cohen biography I'm Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. The word 'mercy' kept on popping up. I remember thinking I'd love to write something for Leonard, which was an answer. A big idea, but I wrote the song for him. Meant with love and respect."
"There is a McCormack's Wall and I used to live next to it. Count John McCormack was a very famous Irish tenor, a wonderful singer. He lived by the canal in Kildare, grew up in this small cottage. And the small cottage has been disused for many years ... it's basically just used by cows, they keep cows in it now. A very idyllic spot.
"I met a friend in Dublin a couple of years ago, and there was an interesting energy between the two of us, but we were just friends. We met and had a cup of tea. And then the cup of tea led to going for a pint, and going for a pint led to going to see our friend's band. And then going to see our friend's band led to us stealing a bottle of wine and jumping in a car and driving to the country to go see John McCormack's house. And we sat in this abandoned old house at two in the morning and sang ... to the ghost of John McCormack. And then we figured it would be a very nice thing to go see Wolfe Tone's grave. [He] was a very strong figure in the Irish rebellion.
"So the night had a very Irish feel. And the night kind of turned romantic somewhere along the line, and it was a little difficult ... at some point I had to break the news that I had a girlfriend and this probably wasn't a good idea. I ended up writing this song as a kind of apology for not being straight off.
"I'm trying to tribute John McCormack, and trying to tribute Wolf Tone as well as my friend who's a wonderful songwriter as well. She wrote a song about the night too. It was a little less kind to me. It's called 'Red Ganzy.'"
"One of those songs that just fell out of my instrument. A friend of mine built me a mandolin and he handed it to me. And when I picked it up, I started playing these chords. There's this thought that every instrument has songs in it, X amount of songs in it. And if you're lucky enough and that instrument likes you, it'll give you what it's got inside. This song was about a deserter, and I didn't know what it was coming from particularly, but I followed it. 'Lonely deserter, sing that old song, and then sing a new one, for the men still in battle' ... it was definitely a calling on a guy to sing tribute to his fallen brothers. And yet he was the guy who claims in the pub — 'I was there, I was there with the men of 1916, I was there' ... and actually he wasn't. He was in a pub. And he was hiding out. In a way, it speaks to the coward's heart. And don't ask me where it came from, it was just something that sort of fell through.
"It sort of sounds almost American Civil War. When I played it with the band, the trombonist ended up doing this amazing New Orleans-y ... it had this real New Orleans feel ... but it was written very much from an Irish perspective."
'Paying My Way'
"A song I wrote after reading George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. It's a report on the living standards of miners in the North of England in the '40s. It's a really interesting read, and [the song] is a working man's song. It's a very simple song, and again, came very quickly.
"Sometimes a character ends up coming true. For some reason, when I sang that song, there was a guy. He was wearing garage overalls, dark blue overalls. He had Elvis greased-back hair. He was a mechanic, a simple guy. Any time we tried to put music on the song, the character would go to me: 'I wouldn't play it that way.' Because this guy is a simple dude. He'd play the simplest version."
'My Little Ruin'
"The subject of that song is the same guy that I sang 'Winning Streak' for. It's a bit more direct. What it is, is, 'I love you. You're an amazing person and you have all the greatest gifts that the gods can bestow on a person. But you constantly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You constantly sabotage your own successes.'
"The song is about someone who can't seem to just enjoy, they can't trust the moment — they have to destroy it. So they live a life of chaos, and leave chaos all around them."
'Just to Be the One'
"A funny one. I was sitting one day, playing the guitar and was looking at my dog. It's actually not my dog. It's my neighbour's dog, but the dog comes into my house every day. And the dog didn't trust me for a couple years, just didn't like me, and I didn't really like it. But there's something about a dog not liking you that makes you feel very lonely. The dog was very untrusting. Other dogs like me fine, but this dog very, very slowly came to me. And when he came to me, he became my best friend. But it was really hard won. And now when I'm home my neighbour doesn't see the dog, he spends all [his] time at my house. So the song is kind of sung from the dog's perspective. I wish there was a deeper meaning to it, but when I sing the song, I guess I am thinking about my own commitment to other people. Even though the dog ... Raga is his name, was the initial inspiration, the song really becomes about just committing to someone and saying I'm with you, you can't blow this, I'll keep coming back."
'Stay the Road'
"I was living in New York, I was living in a place called the Florence Mission. The apartment that I lived in was a women's refuge. Every night at midnight, the people who ran it ...would say mass. And every night at midnight, if the women weren't in by then — these were often times single parents, or women who'd fallen on hard times, or alcoholics ... he would say mass every night and if they weren't at mass the door was closed and they'd be locked out. So every night in my flat I would say a little prayer ... in honour of the women that would stay there. I was trying to write something, to be honest ... like Leonard would write it. It's a simple prayer."