"My vision was unclear" says Hansard of his mental state going into his fourth full-length solo album.
The way he tells it, the feeling was short of being a total writer's block but it nevertheless fueled the realization that he needed to set himself some fresh challenges.
'This Wild Willing' was conceived in Paris and recorded at the French Black Box studios with producer David Odlum. Instead of directing arrangements of fully worked-out material, Hansard decided to invite a group of musicians (some known, some known unknowns) to work on song fragments with no preconceived idea of the outcome. Those recruited included classically-trained Iranian musicians the Khoshravesh brothers, Joe Doyle (bass), ROMY (piano, vocals, string arrangements) and Dublin electronic musicians Deasy and Dunk Murphy (Sunken Foal).
“This collection of songs is mainly made up of those that came through while improvising and following the melodic lines and threads” Hansard explains but so enamored is he of this assembled cast of talented musicians that he seems reluctant to edit down the mixes. The result is that many of the 12 tracks (with a total playing time of 64 minutes) would have benefited from some creative trimming. Good Life Of Song, for instance, is a celebration of a musician's life but it's essentially a simple tune that doesn't need to be stretched out to over seven and half minutes.
Moreover, as a writer, Hansard falls well short of his musical and literary heroes like Bob Dylan and Ernest Hemingway. Images like "rambling through the brambling" (Brother’s Keeper) don't have much poetic resonance and he admits that the lyrics to Race To The Bottom are composed of simple diary entries written while staying in a sparse room in Paris' Latin Quarter.
The collaborations work best on the first three songs. The powerful opener, I’ll Be You, Be Me, establishes an intense and quietly menacing mood. It contains terse reflections on the all-consuming and, by implication, emotionally draining qualities of a loving relationships : “I’ll be you, be me and I’ll be you/I’ll take your truth, your lies, your secrets”. These half whispered words are imbedded in a brooding mix that incorporates a sample from an outtake of Bowie/Queen's 'Under Pressure'.
The piano-driven Don’t Settle is both a note to self and advice to his peers warning them against getting sucked into a deadening comfort zone. It builds to an impassioned finale, with Hansard screaming out the list of 'don'ts' Liam Clancy passed on to a young Dylan: "No envy, no anger, no cruelty, no regrets, no jealousy, no rancor, no confusion".
Best of all is the high drama of Fools Game which begins with a muted litany of love's snares then bursts into a post-rocky crescendo before concluding quietly with a haunting female vocals of Aida Shahghasemi.
Despite all the grizzled reflections on the stormy paths love follows, the closing track, Leave A Light, shows that the romantic flame of the genial Irish busker he portrayed in the movie 'Once' has not been entirely extinguished: "You're the one I'll come back to find" he coos smoothly.
Above all, despite the album's flaws, Hansard deserves praise for being prepared to take risks rather than merely opting to go through the motions. He could so easily have settled for rehashes of the winning formula that produced his best known song - 'Falling Slowly'. Instead, this is an album rooted in a spirit of openness to invention and improvisation and enough of it works to rank it as a successful experiment.