Five years ago, a tiny Irish movie called Once took the world by storm. I noticed it when I was watching Ebert & Roeper and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (filling in for Roger Ebert when he had the surgery from which he’s never fully recovered) named it his favorite movie of 2007. In a terrific year for film, a year that saw the release of many of my favorites from recent years, including There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd and Into the Wild, Phillips picked Once, elaborating that it made him feel like a million dollars. It certainly gave me pause, and the next time I was at Blockbuster (back when those were still around — this particular Blockbuster is long gone), I rented Once and sat down to watch it. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, a modern musical with intentionally underwhelming cinematography.
Many of the movie’s particulars have faded, but I remember the scene below as clear as day:
It was magic. Pure magic. Like “movie magic,” but more than that somehow, since it was like witnessing the birth of a child. Never had I seen something so tender and beautiful in a movie before, at least not when it came to a musical number. And good God, what a song. It’s a song of unmistakable greatness, and songs like them just don’t get written anymore. I remember thinking, “Who is this guy? Why haven’t I heard his music before? Why isn’t this song, like, everywhere?” The guy, it turns out, is an Irish singer/songwriter named Glen Hansard, best known as the vocalist for a band called the Frames. The girl is a Czech singer/songwriter named Markéta Irglová. Until I saw this movie, I had never heard of them. The song is called “Falling Slowly,” and it single-handedly catapulted them to greater fame when they won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in early 2008.
“Falling Slowly” is, for my money, one of the greatest songs in recent memory, and I was shocked that the music press overlooked it entirely when they presented their best of the decade lists a couple years ago. I was also very surprised that it was the only song from the movie nominated for an Oscar. I thought “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “If You Want Me” and “Once” were all deserving of a nomination. Instead they nominated three songs from Enchanted, which I’ve never bothered to see. (Sorry, Disney fans. I hear it’s good though.) I immediately sought out the film’s soundtrack, but in my search I discovered that there are three versions of “Falling Slowly.” The first is on the Once soundtrack, released in 2007, but two more versions were released in 2006, before the film was released.
The Frames recorded versions of “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” for their album The Cost, and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová recorded versions of “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” “Lies” and “Leave” (all songs from Once) for their album The Swell Season. All of the versions are good, really, and it’s nice to have different takes on such great songs. By 2009, Hansard and Irglová were calling themselves The Swell Season, and they released their second album, Strict Joy, which is nothing less than a modern-day Rumours. Hansard and Irglová had entered into a real life relationship that extended beyond the seeds planted in Once, and Strict Joy, like the legendary Fleetwood Mac record, is a breakup album of the highest order, capturing the duo as they fall out of love and remain not just friends, but band members, as well.
And like Rumours, the results are absolutely glorious, as the immediacy and intimacy of their relationship, forged out of songcraft in that music store in Ireland, ends the only way it properly can, through the language of songwriting. Strict Joy is, I think, a modern classic, but it was largely ignored upon its release in October 2009. At least, it failed to appear on any best albums of the 2000s lists. Maybe that’s partially due to its release date, which, after all, was rather late in the decade. (Granted, it didn’t have a particularly wide release, but that should hardly matter. Aren’t critics supposed to be on top of like, everything?) I think this is going to be an album we will appreciate many years from now, and since no one else has bothered to say that, I guess you heard it here first.