After 2007's Academy Award-winning song "Falling Slowly" became an international folk hit, there was nowhere to go but down for love-struck duo the Swell Season. It was the Irish musical Once which catapulted the scruffy Glen Hansard and girlfriend Marketa Irglova to a new level of unexpected middle-aged fame.
With more eyes on the duo than ever before, more expectation and speculation followed. Hansard and Irglova answered back with Strict Joy, an emotionally raw effort, heart-on-the-sleeve, nothing-to-lose that is as vulnerable as it is confident in its decision to wipe the slate clean.
Instead of moving further out into the world to explore their stardom they have recoiled deeper into the heart-breaking love songs that made Once so powerful. They exploit their humbleness and reject the pop sensibilities that mass audiences crave.
Echoes of fellow countryman Van Morrisson's Astral Weeks are laced throughout Strict Joy. "In These Arms," Hansard and Irglova's best effort on the disc, is vocally raw. The couple may have fallen out of love, but haven't given up hope. "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms," Hansard swoons in broken, but optimistic, faith.
As an album, Strict Joy features a conceptual narrative about all things broken-hearted, but it doesn't really hit home until Irglova delivers the hauntingly sexy "Fantasy Man." If Fleetwood Mac has taught us anything it's that turbulent love affairs among band members can produce raw, heartfelt music, and Strict Joy lives up to that the whole way through.