Glen Hansard has achieved that songwriting feat of knowing precisely when to fall apart. Where some grieve, Hansard explodes, and never a moment too soon. Many of his songs are tests of endurance when performed live, for himself as much as the audience, pained narratives that evolve gradually and climax suddenly, with all the vocal strength one throat can muster.
But lately, Hansard is taking pains to keep things quiet. On Didn’t He Ramble, his third solo record in three years, there’s barely a screamer in the bunch. Few traces remain of the exquisite soundtrack to Once, the decade-old Irish film featuring Hansard and his former musical partner Marketa Irglová of The Swell Season. Now Hansard sings in a lower register, with more whisper than shout, and humility has replaced agony in his words. Thick studio arrangements of strings and horns eclipse his sparse acoustic guitar. This rootsy Americana direction dates to 2011, when Hansard first toured with Eddie Vedder and rambled with Levon Helm.
In some ways, this turn has enriched Hansard’s music. Yet in others, it diminishes it; Hansard’s own voice can sometimes sound as if it is in retreat. The instrumentation throughout Didn’t He Ramble at times cloaks the naked vulnerability that first got Hansard noticed. His new songs feel linear, tightly packaged, even tidy. They don’t bleed. The busker has left the street corner.
During a midnight show earlier this week in New York, with a full band around him at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, Hansard ordered the sound guy to “turn everything down.” For most of the hour-long performance that followed, Hansard’s group, which included members of his band The Frames, worked through the new material for the first time. There were as many as three violinists at one point, and a warm trombone filled out excitable foot-stompers like “Her Mercy” and “Lowly Deserter.” Only toward the end of the set, on “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the night’s only selection from Once, did Hansard’s brow burst with sweat and his face fill with crimson.
The closest he comes to this sort of moment on Didn’t He Ramble is on the chorus of “My Little Ruin,” which he told the audience was written for a friend who struggles to balance good fortune with “stealing defeat from the jaws of victory.”
“As you stood there among the cowards,” Hansard sang, “You were lettin’ them win. But I’m not gonna stand aside and watch them tear you up.”
More than once, Hansard mentioned that several of the songs were inspired by different “characters,” real and imagined. One was “a guy you can trust,” Hansard said dryly as he switched to electric guitar for “Paying My Way.” He quickly added: “Not me.”
As the clock ticked past 1:30 on Thursday morning at the SoHo shop, Hansard surrendered his guitar and sat at the keyboard. “McCormack’s Wall,” he revealed, is a belated apology following a drunken fling that flirted with disaster. It was a bitter premise with a sweet ending. And for Hansard, falling apart never sounded so subtle.