Album Review: Glen Hansard - It Was A Triumph We Once Proposed

It’s only fitting, then, I suppose, that this Glen Hansard tribute to Jason Molina arrived on the second anniversary of Molina’s passing. I suppose that the release date was timed to coincide with that, but it’s something that I didn’t put together until I was midway through my second listen of the EP, It Was a Triumph We Once Proposed.

Hansard’s relationship with Molina was well documented—he first wrote Molina a fan letter, and then later, Hansard’s The Frames and Molina’s Songs: Ohia began to play shows in Ireland together, and went on to release a split 7” single.

I used to fuck pretty hard with all things Hansard. I first discovered his band The Frames over a decade ago when I watched open for (and subsequently upstage) fellow Irishman Damien Rice at a theatre in Madison, WI.

Cut to about three years later, when Hansard’s profile began to rise with a little film called Once—a parable of sorts about a guy and a girl who form a musical relationship, and there’s all kind of “will they or won’t they” throughout the running time (they don’t.) But because it’s musical, the song “Falling Slowly” won an Oscar, and then, as Drake would say, Nothing Was The Same.

Hansard, in a sense, forsook The Frames, with their final album The Cost, having arrived in 2006. “Falling Slowly” itself was originally a song he performed with a supposed one-off project, The Swell Season, formed with his Once co-star (and eventual girlfriend Marketa Irglova.) In a post-Academy Award world, with all eyes on Hansard, he formed a “heavier” version of the once sparse Swell Season, by incorporating a “lighter” version of The Frames as his and Irglova’s backing band.

And after The Swell Season’s tepid 2009 LP, I haven’t really paid a ton of attention to what he’s been doing.

The last time I checked, he dropped a solo album a few years back (I didn’t listen to it) and he still tours on his name recognition, coasting on the goodwill of NPR audiences that will shell out $40+ to see him, and only know of him thanks to the Oscar win.

But I’m digressing here.

Anyway, Hansard announced a while ago that he was releasing this EP, and I was skeptical at first. Mostly because every Molina “tribute” up until this point has been questionable at best—and some of them have been flat out unlistenable. But with the announcement, the EP’s first track, “Being In Love,” was shared, and it made me a believer. I couldn’t get my wallet out fast enough to pre-order.

A lean five songs, It Was A Triumph We Once Proposed is, in a sense, yet another fan letter to Molina, sent out into the ether. In the Consequence of Sound review of this EP last week, writer Dusty Henry said it was a “final” fan letter. I can say with confidence that Hansard and his band of players (many of which were in Molina’s Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company) do these songs justice. That’s the real fear with “tributes” or cover collections—if you don’t change it enough, what’s the point? But if you change it too much, it becomes unrecognizable and intolerable.  Hansard does just enough, not quite reaching the levels of angst he found as a young man with The Frames, and not quite reaching the depths of desperation written within Molina’s originals.

It’s a refreshing experiment that pays off, allowing the listener to hear songs that they know (and in my case, treasure) treated well through more than capable hands.

The only flaw with Triumph is that it’s entirely too short. I understand not wanting to overstay your welcome with a project like this, but it’s almost like “here’s your hat, what your hurry?” And with only five songs, Hansard has barely built up the momentum of the EP by the fourth track, “Vanquisher,” before he brings it down to a whisper with “White Sulfur.” Structurally, however, this works.

It opens strong with Hansard’s powerful, and almost uplifting take on the originally ramshackle “Being In Love,” before settling into two songs from Molina’s most beloved Magnolia Electric Company album—the bittersweet “Hold On, Magnolia,” and the album’s unhinged stomping opener, “Farewell Transmission.”

What’s interesting about Hansard’s take on “Farewell Transmission” is that while he, himself, can be incredibly unhinged (e.g. The Frames), he practices an enormous amount of restraint with the song, keeping it that way until he almost creates an indirect tension for the listener who just keeps WAITING for the song to explode—which it doesn’t, but it also doesn’t fizzle out either. It’s a mature take on the track, looking at it from the eyes of a performer who has spent over 25 years howling, and is now old enough to know he doesn’t have to do that all of the time.

For me, Triumph, is in a sense, a triumph. It’s also a reprieve for Hansard as a performer, as I sit waiting for news of a new Frames album. I don’t hold my breath, but I still hope. This is one of those tributes that is great because it keeps the flame or the original artist alive for the fans, but it also may introduce new listeners to a songwriter they were not familiar with. To the casual Glen Hansard fan, who has one or two songs they heard on “All Things Considered” on their iPod, this may, hopefully, open a door to better and more critical listening with a Jason Molina record.

And for the once loyal Hansard devotee, this is a reminder that even though he’s spent a number of years in misstep, he is still a tremendous talent.

It Was A Triumph We Once Proposed is out now on CD via Overcoat.