The duo of The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) gained their fame partly from starring in the 2007 film Once, but even more for impressively snagging an Academy Award for best original song (Falling Slowly) in said film. The romance ultimately didn't last, but rather than ending their recording partnership as well, they wrote and recorded a new album. What's so amazing about the result, Strict Joy, is not that it's another breakup album; in fact, it's the opposite. Imagine the approach the they take: After their romantic relationship dissolves, they actually document the split musically, applying each perspective in conjunction. It certainly is a fresh angle on the already tried and true turning-heartbreak-into-art formula, and they really make it work wonderfully.
Kicking things off is Low Rising, a distinctly Van Morrison flavored number that sets the tone quite well; Hansard begins plainly with "I want to sit you down and talk, I want to pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong" backed by a rich, soulful folk sound. Feeling the Pull has even more energy to it, but it quickly succumbs to the deeply melancholic In These Arms, which finds Hansard lost in bittersweet longing. The sad desperation in how he sings "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms" is crushing, especially when you stop to consider that the very woman he is singing this for is there with him, singing along. Up next is The Rain, in which his desperation has grown even more, as evident with the chorus of "I know we're not where I promised you we'd be by now" and its variations throughout the song. The climbing and dropping strings grow in power as the track continues, adding an incredibly intensity to the already powerful content.
Irglová's lead vocal tracks provide her perspective, first with Fantasy Man, a piano and strings driven song that sadly addresses the state of affairs. "Go on now, just leave it," Irglová sings, "the timing wasn't right, and the force that swept us both away was too strong for us to fight." On her second, I Have Loved You Wrong, she is essentially asking forgiveness for letting go so much sooner than her lover, and expresses that she wants to help him do the same. Her tender vocal is piercing enough, but even more haunting is the song's conclusion, with the two harmonizing "on my mind" repeatedly. Especially coming after The Verb, in which Hansard sings brokenly (as he seems to do more and more as the album progresses) about the sharp loneliness that immediately follows a split.
On Two Tongues Hansard lets slight bitterness through with his pleas for a direct response from an ambivalent partner, and Back Broke serves as the story's conclusion, with Hansard still his former lover's friend, but still sadly clinging to that last shred of hope that she may one day change her mind. His heartbreaking delivery is what makes this possibly the saddest song on the album; just the way he sings "back broke, and happy" is able to tell the whole story nearly on its own.
Strict Joy is a breakup album, plain and simple. It's the idea of the two exes writing and performing it together that gives it most of its allure, not to mention the clever instrumentation throughout. Not every song works as well as it should, or contribute much to the story that the disc presents, but in the end the flaws are entirely forgivable, as the songs that do work are outstanding. Fifty minutes very well spent.