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All That Was East Is West Of Me Now (Anti-)

Intensity isn’t new for Glen Hansard, nor particularly noteworthy. Let’s be honest, intensity is a base-line measure for the Irishman whether the songs are solo, romantic, argumentative or philosophical, and the measuring of difference is in degrees.

And just to be clear, intensity in this context has little to nothing to do with volume, or for that matter anger or force. I’m talking about the depth of feeling and the grip it has on performance and then in the hearing.

So when I say that this new album has a compelling power, a kind of focused internal energy within its quietest moments and something physically greater still in its rockier ones, that at times burns both its deliverer and its listener, I’m not pissing about and neither is Hansard.

Does this necessarily make the album better? That is more open to debate.

What is not in question is that with a full electric band, including several members of his alma mater, The Frames, Hansard has made an album that on a number of tracks hits harder than he has for some time. Since the last Frames album, really.

The Feast Of St John drenches its stern tempo – the snare snapping shut like a slammed door; the bass almost dragging behind like a reluctant younger brother – with sheets of aggravated guitars that build defensive steps like an early Pearl Jam song. But that tempo doesn’t change, doesn’t relieve. When Hansard sings “Oh like birds of bad weather/Oh here they come/Oh may they all fall together/Oh monsters begone“, we could mistake it for a lashing out, an attack, his roughening voice some call to action before the countering brute of a guitar solo. But wait.

Even more so, Down On Our Knees, which opens with piano and a vibrating beyond the horizon that resolves itself into a febrile post-punk bass, becomes an ever thickening collation of guitars and synthesisers and cello and piano, all pushing Hansard’s voice forward and then upwards to remain in the lead. He lists some kind of apocalyptic catalogue of ills and declaims, appropriately biblically, “We’ll all go down on our knees, won’t we?/Eventually”. Hellfire. Damnation. But wait.

In a whiplash moment, this storming opening double gives way to acoustic guitar and voice, to piano and upright bass, to No Mountain, a song which as it expands its arrangement to include mandolin, drums and strings, opens its arms to high mountains gospel and Celtic soul. And it opens its arms to succour, Hansard noting, even as “the thunder came roaring in and cut me down to size”, even as he accepts that “there’s no doubt blues is running the game”, that a unity of purpose and support can push back. “You said ‘no, there is no mountain great or small you can’t climb’,” he sings, and he believes enough.

God or friendship? Love or solidarity? It doesn’t matter which you choose to hear in that but it is there, and it was there are also in the preceding tracks, you realise. The Feast Of St John in retrospect reads more like a shout back at the despair that might lead someone to take their own way out and leave a “lover attending and her arms all around/And her anger and her ire and her blood raging full”. The rage of Down On Our Knees, the cry toThrow your alms to heaven, throw your arms round me/Throw your alms to heaven, die for what we believe”, may yet be an antidote to futility.

This is where things, on the surface, turn. Barring one more full-band rock song later, (the gruff, pointed, Bearing Witness), the album pulls back to Van Morrison-like folk and piano-led intimacies, to murmured ballads in sometimes tense strings and low-burbbling electronics. To songs where the voices of Ruth and Amelia O’Mahony-Brady feel elemental, tangible, or the theremin of Via Mardot feels ephemeral but yet visible.

However, beneath that surface, Hansard’s resolve throbs harder, more clearly exposed in the absence of sonic “intensity”, and more clearly the fruit of some hard experience and earned wisdom as captured in the album’s title which reflects the passage of time and the assumed knowledge that has passed. Everywhere there seems to be a fight to pull someone back from abandonment or present an alternative argument to those who have watched someone give in and go. Nothing is minor and nothing can be overlooked.

In Short Life, which carries some connection to his work with Marketa Irglova in Once and Swell Season, as well as the more tortured gloaming of David Berman, in its mix of European cabaret and country bar, Hansard approaches once again the idea of time cut down early and the possibility/wisdom of doing all we can within that, and seems to be reaching out. The uncertainty expressed by a friend in Between Us There Is Music, the question of whether to “crash and break and burn” as a measure of how others see us, is countered by strings on a gentle incline and a resolution that “perhaps there is a song … answers of our own” between us, and judgement cannot be left to judges because “it’s yours and only your concern”.

These feelings are not slight or passing. Nor are the dilemmas easy. Within the Leonard Cohen-does-chanson Sure As The Rain, a slow waltz where strings replace accordion and David Hingerty’s drums sometimes feel barely there, the advice goes both ways: to a lover who doubted because love may have strayed, and the one who now recognises “the very best of everything is you … I have no thought for leaving no more”.

But here too is something that goes beyond, that goes to the core of this record and its principal plea/argument. “Light luminescent, hold on somehow/Burn low if you have to, but don’t go out.”


An interview with Glen Hansard on the release of his previous studio album, Between Two Shores. THE COURAGE TO DRIFT, THE STRENGTH TO TRUST

A review of Glen Hansard's 2021 album LIVE AT SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE.


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