The Frames’ redheaded frontman has come a long way since the world first glimpsed him as a scrawny, fresh-faced guitarist named Outspan in The Commitments film back in 1991. In the same year, Hansard’s real-life group released their Island Records debut and The Frames still remain one of Ireland’s best-loved bands, nearly twenty five years on. He returned to the big screen in 2006, via the nicely understated film Once, which was pretty much built around his music and that of Czech singer songwriter Markéta Irglová. The runaway success of Once, now immortalised (for better or worse) by its conversion to a West End musical, marked the start of Hansard’s transition from cult star to national treasure.
It’s little surprise, then, that Didn’t He Ramble sees Hansard finally trying on some other stylistic hats. When you’ve got as far as he has, you’ve earned the right to dabble and digress a little. But mixing it up is a risky business and though this approach was hinted at in his solo debut Rhythm & Repose from 2012, the genre lurches here are much starker, which makes the record as a whole feel more disjointed.
The hushed and exposed voice that kicks off opener ‘Grace Beneath The Pines’ swells to textbook hoarse-voiced passion by its peak, backed by simple piano, strings and soft-blown brass. The lilting ‘Wedding Ring’ that follows is gentler; like a tranquilised Waterboys or a less self-conscious Damien Rice. So far, all is as you might expect but then the first surprise left turn comes in the form of ‘Winning Streak’, which is pure, unflinching Americana and thus the obvious choice for the record’s first single, with its strong transatlantic appeal. Next up, the soulful, Van Morrison-tastic showstopper ‘Her Mercy’ is all horn sections and gospel choir hugeness. Then we turn yet another stylistic corner as the waltzing piano and fiddle of ‘McCormack’s Wall’ puts us firmly on the sodden turf of Irish folk. Just as suddenly, our flight is leaving for America again, this time for the New Orleans brass shambling of ‘Lowly Deserter’.
So, Didn’t He Ramble will surely make for unsettling listening among Frames purists (they have to wait until eight tracks in for the familiar spiky angst of ‘My Little Ruin’) but hey, that’s what solo albums are all about. All the genre toing and froing is disorientating (or disorienting as our cousins over there would say) but this is perhaps what life has been like for Glen Hansard in the last few years: ping-ponging between continents to keep up with his own new-found stardom. It’s also a probable insight into the album’s title as Hansard reflects on the whirlwind of the past decade. He has, after all, done more rambling than most.
It’s something of a relief that the last few tracks start to bring us back down to more intimate territory. The road-weary ‘Paying My Way’ is a song of homecoming, slight and close, carried by voice and electric guitar with a few simple atmospherics. ‘Just To Be The One’ is busier but pulses along with soft-beaten drums and the vocal whispering right into our ear; we’re reminded again of how good Hansard’s songs are when they’re barely dressed at all. The beautiful, tired hope of album closer ‘Stay The Road’ is refreshingly naked - with nothing more than voice and acoustic guitar - and after everything that’s come before it, it feels like the bravest piece on the whole record.
At this point in his career, Glen Hansard’s status as a songwriter is unchallengeable and there really isn’t anything other than heart poured into every second of Didn’t He Ramble. There are no weak songs, dashings off or lapses of judgment; indeed it seems totally inconceivable that there ever could be. For some listeners, the mixture of feels may seem unfocused, but I prefer to think of this collection as a little scrapbook of the remarkable journey made by this onetime busker from Dublin. I can do no more than urge you to read it cover to cover.
Review by Rich Barnard
Didn't He Ramble is out now on ANTI- Records.