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The Swell Season | On Point

Part III: Honest Music

I’ve found myself in the past couple of years in search of music that speaks to life. Really speaks to life.
So much popular music is mainly the girl meets boy (or boy meets girl) variety of sentimental or sensual romance. I’m not totally against this. It just has limits.

I’m looking for the kind of lyrics and musical composition that goes deeper than feelings and hormones. I don’t want to avoid either of these, but the complications of human relationships and situations of the world are so much more. I was first drawn into the music of Kate Campbell several years ago when I saw the depth of stories that she tells. She’s not singing love songs in any traditional sense, but rather she’s giving voice to complications of race, family, tradition.

Last night I went to the Ryman Auditorium to hear the Swell Season. They, too, tell complex stories and in their music they name the twisting and complicated roads that human beings travel in order to find meaning, love, forgiveness. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are the Swell Season. They are backed both on their albums and in many live concerts by The Frames, a band begun by Hansard.

One reason I find the music of the Swell Season, not sentimental, but instead real and healing is the passion of their performance. The complexity and subtlety of their lyrics and singing, capture something beyond the words or notes. This element runs like a powerful current through all their discography. On stage it is embodied in ways that draws the audience right into the moment. Sometimes singing along. Other times sitting spellbound by the poetry and artistry of the performance.

Their latest album Strict Joy debuted last fall, and it has moved steadily into my regular play list. The music has a deep joy at living and loving. Not a simplicity or false giddiness, but joy that only comes on the far side of complexity. The relationship between Mar and Glen has been through its own ups and downs by their own reckoning. Yet they appeared on stage last night to be so kind and gentle with each other. They smile and hand the lead back and forth through the evening in a comfortable and seamless way, no doubt a product of endless practice at just such performing. And living?

And joy was the note on which they ended last night. Not only did they deliver eight more songs after a curtain call, they closed with an Irish wake song. Inviting the audience in one more time to sing with them “And joy be with you and good night . . . no fear, no anger, no envy.” Glen said the song was usually sung from the perspective of the corpse, indicating a kind of letting go of everything for the joy of what has been lived.

Music that speaks to life. Really speaks to the lives we live. That is healing. Joyful healing.