Glen Hansard: Didn’t He Ramble

glen hansard didn't he ramble
Glen Hansard
Didn’t He Ramble
(Anti-)
4 out of 5 stars

The line between insufferably precious and unaffectedly tender can be thin indeed. It’s one that Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard hasn’t always navigated effectively. For every touching, introspective moment in his catalog– either fronting long time rockers The Frames, working with ex-flame Marketa Irglova in the Swell Season or on his previous solo release– there seems to be another where Hansard’s plentiful, often downbeat, brooding and pseudo-poetic lyrics feel forced and self-servingly pitiful.

The latter nearly sunk 2012’s previous effort in a sea of goopy melodrama that could be given a pass since it was his “breakup album.” So the outlook wasn’t promising for this follow-up two years later. One look at song titles like “Grace Beneath the Pines,” “Her Mercy,” and “Just to be the One” also doesn’t bode well for Hansard to break out of his Mr. Mopey mode. Well, so much for judging a book by its cover or Hansard by his previous missteps because Didn’t He Ramble is a surprising and unexpectedly refreshing success.

Acoustic based songs such as “Wedding Ring” and the closing, unaccompanied “Stay the Road” feel warm and natural partially due to expertly constructed lyrics.  But more importantly, Hansard’s deep burnished voice—a ringer for Cat Stevens’ similar style—is inviting and easy going, as if he’s personally welcoming you to hear his stories and confessions. Better still is the surprising addition of a horn section, angelic backing vocals and subtle orchestration underpinning about half the tunes. They are beautifully introduced on “Her Mercy” that starts with just lone, lonely guitar and builds to a shimmering crescendo with crashing drums and full accompaniment less than five magnificent minutes later until it ends as softly as it began.

Hansard goes Celtic on “Lonely Deserter” where the horn section emphasizes the tune’s hook, along with fiddle and a slithering trombone solo that might be the jazziest moment in his catalog. He seems in better spirits too, giving a friend encouragement on “Winning Streak” (“roll the dice boy, cause my money’s on you”) and promising to pursue a romance on “Just to be the One” (“I’ll follow where you lead me/I’ll go through anything”) gleaming with a circular acoustic guitar figure, low key use of horns, fluttering flute that flows like a stream in spring and Hansard’s whispered vocals similar to those of Peter Gabriel at his most reserved.

Production by longtime collaborator Thomas Bartlett and ex-Frames member David Odlum is inviting, alluring and engaging. It pushes Hansard into his finest performances yet on originals that are haunting, poignant and beautifully conceived.