Every sailor comes to a moment in the journey when arrival and departure are equidistant; when all that’s visible is endless sea, and the simple choice is to either turn back or keep moving forward. Irish singer and songwriter Glen Hansard is an accomplished mariner, and it was a seafaring adventure that inspired his new Between Two Shores. The album is populated with characters who are adrift, unable to see the shoreline, unsure of what comes next; each one faces either romantic dissolution or political unrest, and resolves to move forward despite their doubts. It’s an album about “movin’ on” and “setting forth,” as two different songs put it, choosing motion over stasis and trusting time to sort out the rest.
His characters have their trepidations, but Hansard has never sounded more assured. Between Two Shores is an album of supple craft, eschewing flash in favor of fundamentals: Hansard draws equally from his days as an arena rocker (“Roll On Slow” sweetens its bar-band grind with a full complement of E-Street horns) and a folk singer (“Movin’ On” is a spare, prickly acoustic number, sent up into the rafters by Hansard’s hearty yowl), and gracefully blurs the lines between the two (“Your Heart’s Not in It” has a rousing, rustic thump). He very nearly borrows a title from The Basement Tapes for “Wheels On Fire,” which rides a cantankerous organ groove and fumes at an unnamed political oppressor, and he captures the swaying R&B of Moondance-era Van Morrison for the pained ballad “Why Woman.” Hansard lets his craft drift into uncharted waters, too; a few songs were recorded with jazz drummer Brian Blade and members of his Fellowship band, and they recall the pastoral folk and blustery swirl of another Van Morrison era—Veedon Fleece and its stormy weather of the soul. All of this is comfort food—music that’s lived-in and wrinkled, warm and welcoming in its melancholy, as cozy and familiar as a favorite afghan, or perhaps just a favorite Nick Drake record. It’s the most satisfying Glen Hansard album yet—intimate, nakedly emotional, bolstered by writing that’s sturdy and direct, performances that are earnest and easygoing.
Rivers are important here, not only employed as metaphors for time’s onward push but also evoked through the slippery currents of the music. “Wreckless Heart” ebbs and flows with a lazy babble until a watery trumpet solo carries it off into the mystic. “Setting Forth,” meanwhile, conjures the sea’s steady pull, its piano-led verses gently insistent, rumbling percussion like dark clouds along the edges. And then there’s the benedictory flow of “Time Will Be the Healer,” a song that emanates endless tranquility, even as Hansard’s voice rises from a whisper to a howl. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the album’s emotional directness, its preference of plainspeak over oblique metaphor, its weathered determination; in it, Hansard acknowledges that the pain of a broken heart can seem unending, and that some days all you can hope to do is ride it out. He plays the role of the consoling friend—he can’t make the hurt go away, but he can offer the wisdom of someone who’s seen his share of scrape-ups: “Keep your friends and neighbors close at hand/ Stay busy with your wok and don’t give in/ To the bottle or your self-defeat again.” Indeed, much of Between Two Shores is concerned with staying afloat and pushing ahead through periods of doubt. In “Wreckless Heart,” when he says he’s going to “cry that river,” it sounds more like catharsis than despair, a willingness to acknowledge grief, be changed by it, and move on. But the album’s best song is “Setting Forth,” about being brave and hopeful as a matter of intention, and independent of external circumstances. “I’m setting forth/ with my instinct/ I’m setting forth/ With my doubts,” Hansard sings. Sometimes, in choppy waters, all you can do is keep sailing; as for where you’ll wind up, only time will tell.