After three lauded solo records and countless packed-out shows across the globe, Glen Hansard has amassed laurels aplenty upon which to rest if he were that way inclined. Thankfully, it would appear he is not, as This Wild Willing represents a decisive step forward in the post-Once career of the onetime Frames frontman as he eases off on the Van Morrisonisms he’s become synonymous with and begins re-engaging with the boundary-pushing of his earlier work.
The hiss and stuttering lo-fi beats of ‘I’ll Be You, Be Me’ starts small and whispery but quietly gathers its stormclouds, which break at the song’s close in a torrential rage. Such cacophonies were often a feature of The Frames’ records but these have been largely absent from Hansard’s solo output until now. That some musical danger is apparently being reclaimed here is all to the good and the evident collaboration with electro outfit Sunken Foal also helps broaden the sonic landscape.
‘Don’t Settle’ – the first of the record’s many epics – is played straighter, with its brass section and more traditional (but no less impassioned) climaxes. It’s been a staple of Mr H’s live set for a while now and, fittingly, serves as the manifesto for the record: keep yourself keen. The subtle use of vocal effects on ‘Fool’s Game’ allows the singer to haunt and weave against the piano and horns. The song’s noisy middle is less effective than that of ‘I’ll Be You…’ but its aftermath is sublime: the purity of Aida Shahghasemi’s vocal coda is in stark contrast to the fizzing interference that has come before. Likewise, the soundworld of ‘Race to the Bottom’, evocative of the souk, is refreshing territory. The track highlights Hansard’s involvement with the Khoshravesh brothers from Iran and further reassures that Hansard remains outward-looking in his search for new musical textures.
The record’s second half seems deliberately barer and more intimate than the first. ‘Brother’s Keeper’ is a rolling, folk-flecked, living-room tune, as is ‘Mary’ – albeit with an added middle-eastern flavour. Things continue in this vein with more organic, acoustic ingredients taking centre stage. At a whopping seven and a half minutes, the inscrutable ‘Weight of the World’ trickles, meanders and mumbles along while ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Baby Now’, with swimmy upright bass, is positively John Martyn in its driftiness. Another seven-minuter, ‘Good Life of Song’, is more grounded but still draws the willing into a hypnotic fug.
‘Leave a Light’ exposes the pure Irish folk roots from which Hansard’s manifold talents stem. An emotional, yearning song, – simply dressed in guitar and dronesome, weeping fiddlery – it closes the album quietly and serves as a reminder of Glen Hansard’s seasoned skills as a singer and songwriter at the most basic level. It also cements the idea that this is indeed a record of two halves, and perhaps this is intentional, because even after sixty-five minutes in the man’s company, I’m ready to go back to the beginning and drink it in all over again.
Review by Rich Barnard.