So which side of the Glen Hansard debate are you on? Is he an anachronistic drippy hippy, beloved of German tourists and habitués of Whelans? Or is he a poetic seer who’s laboured this long and this hard because he’s actually got something to say?
The definitive answer comes on his debut solo album, a record that has clearly been festering in the undergrowth of Hansard’s mind as he’s progressed through the protean rush of The Frames, the late-night meditation of The Swell Season, and more recent Oscar and Tony Award winning glory.
Hasn’t that Outspan Foster done well? That the bard of Ballymun has hit those kind of heights will leave his detractors bemused and provide final vindication for those who’ve kept the flame. But only a churl or a One Direction fan would deny that Rhythm and Repose is a very fine album indeed, one on which Hansard has largely dumped all the things that made him slightly unpalatable in the past – the over earnestness, the gnomic hippy speak, and, well, the raggle taggle. He’s now striving for something more stately but understated with a fresh grasp of song writing that almost flickers with the spirit of his avowed heroes, the holy trinity of Dylan, Cohen, and Van Morrison.
A lot of that has got to do with Hansard distancing himself from the romance songs that have seen him pick apart doomed love affairs with forensic obsession. Those songs were good for the Whelans habitués but kinda boring for the rest of us. He’s also distanced himself physically from the goldfish bowl of Dublin and moved to New York to clear his head and it’s clearly paid off for a man-out-of-time bohemian like Hansard.
Rhythm and Repose burns with a new purpose and he’s surrounded himself with quite a band including Bon Iver’s string man, Rob Moose, slide guitarist David Mansfield (who played on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour), and half of Bruce Springsteen’s current brass section. Oh, and he’s also reunited with his Swell Season partner Markéta Iglová on at least one song. It also says something than Levon Helm was also due to appear on Rhythm and Repose and that Hansard was working on a song with the Band man just before his recent passing.
He’s moving in different circles alright but while the album was made in Manhattan it’s still moored in Ireland. Success hasn’t turned Hansard's head too much and his overall theme is hope, something very clear on You Will Become, a song of encouragement written for his younger brothers, and The Storm, It’s Coming. Both are about his homeland, written and sung far from its shores and with a bit of exile and cunning too.
Talking with The Wolves is a finely crafted thing and Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting may have something of Van circa Beautiful Vision but when Hansard can’t hold back any longer, Rhythm and Repose is less successful – both Bird of Sorrow and High Hopes may start with subtle acoustics and vocals but they soon explode into overwrought Frames style firestorms.
We have to wait until the very good Races, a proud ballad with all the gravitas of a rebel song, for him to really speak his mind: “If I win some races it doesn’t mean I’m better or faster than anybody else” he avers over the swell of accordion and the steady plink of piano. Clearly he wants to play down his recent triumphs and it doesn’t sound like false modesty.
Rhythm and Repose may be the greatest of those triumphs. It sounds like Glen Hansard has decided to dive into the torrent and not just go with the flow.