In the summer of 1991, three international studios in the British Isles and United States came together to produce a movie. Adapted from a thin novel by acclaimed Irish writer Roddy Doyle, the screenplay follows a ragtag band of aspiring soul musicians through the tumultuous music scene in working-class Dublin.
The film quickly became a smash hit, and nearly 25 years after its release, “The Commitments” has secured a spot among the most lauded Irish films of all time. Its wit and charm, authentic cinematography and square focus on life in a crumbling European city earned praise from audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
The movie received its warmest reception at home, where a cast of unknowns suddenly found themselves elevated to celebrity status. Among them was twenty-one-year-old Glen Hansard, an actor from Dublin with strawberry-blond locks and a golden voice. But Hansard would later describe his participation in the film as an untimely distraction from what he really wanted to be doing: music.
Yet the iconic role bore fruit for the ascending singer-songwriter. Hansard would eventually release ten albums – six with the influential Dublin-based rock group he helped found, The Frames; three with Czech musician Markéta Irglová as The Swell Season, a folk duo featured in the critically acclaimed film “Once”; and two as a solo artist. The Irish troubadour’s most recent work, “Didn’t He Ramble,” not yet a month old, further refines the sparse but powerful style that is his calling card.
The record opens with “Grace Beneath the Pines,” a melancholic number featuring a slow-building, minimalistic orchestral arrangement. It’s a mature ballad from an older performer reckoning with the heaviness of decades-long rock ’n’ roll. “There’ll be no more running around for me,” the singer declares over successive minor chords elegiacally emanating from a piano.
Hansard is an artist, and one too experienced toforgo major creative opportunities. The cover artwork features the silhouetted Irishman in profile against a light blue sky of ambiguous hour. It’s in fact a sunrise, previewing the pre-dawn sadness of the opening track, which otherwise feels out of place against the muted mournfulness of the album.
When “Didn’t He Ramble” picks up, it soars to impressive heights. The pop-folksy musician succeeds by tapping into the rich creative reservoirs that first nourished him: an ambitiousness from the cinema, heard on pompous tracks like “Winning Streak”; and a rusticly straight from the streets of the Emerald Isle in dancing tunes like “Lowly Deserter.” The fiddle duet fading out “McCormack’s Wall” gives a voice to the ethnic sensibility Hansard’s audience has come to expect.
Hansard flaunts the Irish tricolor proudly, despite the entry of American sounds into his repertoire over the years. Many of the album’s best tracks toe the line between the two countries and their unique sonic lineages. “Just to be the One” floats in melodies of a faraway sadness, like a gray Irish overcast day. Other tracks like “My Little Ruin” offer softer, more timorous rock more in sync with early Coldplay than The Clancey Brothers. “Her Mercy” is one such delight of pure Americana. The song plays on brash and manifold instrumentation that might have filled Shea Stadium had Glen Hansard the advantage of time.
The record’s rare misses, particularly the slow and forgettable “Wedding Ring,” overindulge Hansard’s inclination to display the fullest range of his musicianship. The track, second on “Didn’t He Ramble,” offers a much-needed reprieve from the sullen opening. It only treads too lightly, whimpering dejectedly when the weary listener requires a wake-up shout.
“Stay the Road” bookends the album with buoyancy, a stripped-down acoustic ballad that returns to the basics. Here Hansard’s found the raw vigor that lends the album life, the confidence in misfortune that makes the album title a declarative and not an interrogative.
He has, by now, toured the world over, lit silver screens from London to Beijing, and blazed an unlikely path toward stardom. But he didn’t ramble then, and isn’t ranting now. And though the work is not perfectly engineered for the hometown audience, Hansard conveys the pathos unique to a son of Erin.