Didn’t He Ramble begins where Rhythm and Repose left off, with songs of good hope. Previously the front man of The Frames and co-lead of The Swell Season alongside Marketa Irlgova, Glen Hansard has long been a singer that dwelled in struggle instead. His music was oft centered on seeds of frustration, anger, jealousy, sadness, brokenness, and desire, seeds that had grown large enough to made cracks in the soil and threaten the stability of the ground, but not enough to escape the tumult, blossom into flowers, and enjoy the sun above the surface.
The title of his second solo venture, Didn’t He Ramble, appears as a meta-commentary on his previous attempts to tackle instability as merely circling around the subject, as wandering. Such uncertainty has dissipated in Didn’t He Ramble, which is more deeply grounded in acceptance.
This is presented in the slow and steady opener, “Grace”, with the lyrics that ring with a calm strength in the face of strife – “they’ll be no more running around for me”…“whatever life’s in store for me, I’ll get through it”. Starting with “Grace” a word that has religious connotations and means a light-footedness, respect, and good will is indicative of the eddies of thought that run throughout Didn’t He Ramble.
One of the highlights, “Winning Streak”, shines at the intersection of these various meanings. It celebrates finding an answer or salve to distress, in this case through the cross. “Her Mercy” continues in this vein of not exploring being “lost among the rubble”; with mercy, or grace, being predicted upon having an open heart and believing in one’s own worthiness to receive it, a belief harder to grasp when embroiled in one’s own broken-downedness. The gospel-style background vocals not only expand upon the religiosity of mercy in the song, but also work to bring community into focus.
Hansard has said that the album is not composed of love songs, instead many of the songs center on friendship, like tender beauties “My Little Ruin” and “McCormick’s Wall”, which were written out of intense love and care for his friends or from moments shared and sweet between those that remain just friends. This switch in tone, not only evident in the lyrics, is mirrored in the instrumentation.
His first solo album, Rhythm and Repose, relied more strongly on harmonies, specifically harmonies with women (Marketa Irglova and Cristin Milioti for example), while with Didn’t He Ramble, most of his collaborators were men. Strings are also less predominant, the largest exception being the interlude in “McCormick’s Wall”; instead, the album is horn-heavy, adding a warm, soulful, and hope-tinged air to the tunes. The use of horns as the hook is a joyful juxtaposition with the otherwise the sweet but tempered “Just to Be the One”.
Not all the songs land as well. “Lowly Deserter” stands out as one of the biggest surprises, treading the farthest from his repertoire. Downright folksy in a way that is jarring, the horns confuse, seemingly unattached to the subject matter. And “Wedding Ring” and “Paying My Way” are not nearly as instrumentally captivating as some of the other songs. However, they do other important work, be that reminding us of Hansard’s excellent songwriting skills or elucidating on themes of change as hard work and praise of process; themes at the forefront of “Stay The Road”, perhaps the strongest on the record, which returns to just Glen and his guitar with an almost instantaneous soothing effect. The gentle curl of Glen’s voice has the uncanny ability to wrap you in a blanket of feeling safe and at home.
For those expecting a Frames-ian explosion of angst, or a Swell Season-esque insight into a crumbling relationship, may not initially be interested in what Didn’t He Ramble has to offer. Though it offers some stunningly heartfelt expressions of care and kindness, none quite reach the same dizzying emotional heights. Even as doubt and anguish and replaced by steadfastness and assurance, the power of Hansard’s voice remains strong and true.
Written by Nina Leonard
OurVinyl | Contributor