When Once hit theaters in 2007, Glen Hansard had already pursued international fame for more than 15 years with the Frames. Although popular in Ireland, the singer's music wasn't nearly as omnipresent in other countries until the movie's release, which catapulted tunes like "Falling Slowly" into the spotlight. The Once soundtrack was also a big hit, turning Hansard's side project with simpatico songwriter Markéta Irglová into a full-fledged, award-winning, globetrotting band. While playing international venues and attending industry award shows, the two attracted additional attention for their real-life relationship, which effectively replaced Once's semi-tearful conclusion with a storybook ending. Released two years after the film's release, however, Strict Joy finds Hansard and Irglová going their separate ways, choosing to end their relationship while remaining in the same band.
Hansard has used heartbreak for fuel in the past, and he keeps the blaze going throughout these 12 tracks. If the Once soundtrack was a bit spotty -- its track list culled from a haphazard array of old Frames songs, Van Morrison covers, collaborative material, and the musicians' own tunes -- then Strict Joy shows what the Swell Season can do with a singular theme and a solid backing band, both of which contribute to the album's cohesion. Van Morrison's influence is still apparent, particularly in the '70s-styled soul of "Low Rising," but the singer/songwriter ambience that permeated Once's music doesn't carry as much weight here. Instead, Strict Joy devotes more concern to exploring the lush, full boundaries of Swell Season's sound, which now includes tasteful doses of strings, electric guitar, and overdubbed harmonies. The results are quite often gorgeous, with songs like "The Rain" and "High Horses" building up to expansive, cathartic climaxes over the course of several minutes. Also striking are the performances by Markéta Irglová, who turns her fragile voice -- an instrument that always seemed detrimentally self-conscious on previous albums -- into something alluring on "Fantasy Man" and "I Have Loved You Wrong." It's testament to the band's vision that they remain focused despite such improvements; no amount of cinematic orchestration can change the fact that these songs are, after all, inward-looking tunes about heartbreak and personal struggle, and their lyrics resonate regardless of their wrapping paper. As a result, Strict Joy is a joy from start to finish, and few bands manage to mix intimacy and sweeping songcraft with such finesse. ~ Andrew Leahey