It’s tough not to appreciate the success of last year’s Once, the little low-budget story of star-crossed lovers that blew past three tracks from Enchanted to nab the Best Original Song Oscar. But when he’s not playing a tenderhearted busker falling for real-life love Marketa Irglova, Glen Hansard fronts Irish rock group The Frames, which formed in the early ‘90s and has released nine albums together. Their latest, 2007’s The Cost, has all the lovelorn, perfectly measured lyrics and overriding charm of Once, just fleshed out with thicker, although still soaring, instrumentation that lends the songs a slow-burning, at times almost epic build.
Both “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” showed up in Once, and they’re stunning: Hansard’s voice melds seamlessly from the former’s sensitive tones to the increasingly unhinged growl of “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, backed by raw scrapes of guitar and Colm Mac An Iomaire’s almost hysteric strings. The Frames inevitably draw comparisons to fellow Dubliners U2, but there’s a soulful grace to Hansard’s voice that sounds more similar to Van Morrison, though the group can break out the heart-crushing anthems when needed.
Just check out the winning tag team of “Sad Songs” and “The Cost.” “Songs” is all hooky, infectious melodies, with its singing drum crashes and immediate resonance, while “The Cost” is its darker-edged companion, featuring barely more than distorted guitar and Hansard’s lone, echoed vocals. “Will we let it burn, burn us down, burn us,” he sings, voice hushed as the guitars begin to crash around him, mimicking his anguished yowling that finally dissolves off into the song’s achingly hopeful last line, “And maybe it’ll turn us around?”
For every ragged, wrenching moment of catharsis here, there’s another gloriously tender track to be soaked in. Opener “Song For Someone” is all sumptuous instrumentation and affecting beauty, combining silky touches of acoustic guitar and strings with simple yet precise lyrics: “Tryin’ to focus on the good / I’m tired of divin’ for the pearls / And every dawn is another morning less / I have to wait to wake beside that girl.” Meanwhile, “People Get Ready” is spilling over with energy, rising to its climax on the wings of a soaring string section and an effervescent, ecstatically-delivered chorus, “We have all the time in the world / To get it right, to get it right / We have all the love in the world / To set alight, to set alight.” This song has the sort of inexorable power and stadium-ready soulfulness of U2’s “Bad,” and the only way it could be better is catching it live.
The album closes out (all-too soon) with “Bad Bone,” which starts out as a sparse reflection on “a bad bone inside of me / All my troubles started there…A jealousy that’s killed every love I’ve ever known.” Then the guitars kick in, clear and ringing, and the track becomes an impassioned, hopeful ode to love, simmering off as Hansard pleads, “So if you’ll lead the way.”
Alternately washed over with melancholy and rising to resplendence, The Cost is nevertheless evocative and wonderfully elegant throughout. This is a hidden treasure of an album worth the time it takes to unearth and explore.