When you're in love, finding songs to suit your mood comes easily — you can't go very far into popular music of any genre without coming across a love song. Songs for the process of falling in love, however, are a bit more difficult to come by. Only a gifted songwriter can capture the awkward passion, the uncertainty and the abject fear of a relationship that hasn't quite happened yet.
Glen Hansard and classically trained Czech vocalist and pianist Markéta Irglová stab nobly with The Swell Season, the 2006 collaboration they produced when former Frames bassist John Carney asked them to create songs for his film Once. Borrowing its concept from the 1975 Josef Skvorecký novel of the same name, the record ostensibly chronicles one man's pursuit of unattainable women against the backdrop of a dissolving Czechoslovakia. Instead, it plays more like a chronicle of a love that is currently under negotiation.
Much of the tension in The Swell Season comes from departures. Lovers flit into Hansard's lyrics and then leave, requiring him to either plead for their return — as he does on the chilling opener, “In the Arms of This Low” — or begrudge their absence. On “Leave,” he screams for a lover to “Let go of my heart/ You said what you have to” while sustained guitar notes cower beneath. His voice leaps octaves and trembles, and by the end of the song he's exhausted himself, like a toddler at the end of a tantrum.
Irglová serves as a balancing force for Hansard's histrionics. Her voice remains steady and even, with few unnecessary flourishes. For “The Moon,” she melds herself to Hansard, and for a moment, their two voices sound like one.
The record sparkles most brightly when it's chronicling moments of deep connection. “Falling Slowly” finds the lovers relishing their time with one another against gentle piano and cascading strings. (The song was reworked on the Frames 2007 album, The Cost.) The only thing missing from the lush orchestration is the sound of rumpled sheets rustling around their entangled limbs.
Hansard and Irglová ended up starring in Once, and reportedly by the end of the film, they had fallen in love. This chemistry infuses The Swell Season and lends it an air of authenticity. When Irglová pleads, “We're sailing, sailing every night/ We're drifting, drifting alone apart,” on the melancholic “Alone Apart,” it is the least convincing moment on the record. She simply sounds too connected.