It’s true that Once, the 2006 movie starring Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech pianist Markéta Irglová, was both a bittersweet romantic tale and a delivery system for songs of intense gorgeousness and gorgeous intensity. But the film’s real value might have been in the way that it portrayed not the act of musical performance but the act of musical creation. One second, “Falling Slowly” doesn’t exist; the next, it does. Once showed how, arguing fiercely for the singular, fitful creative act in all of its agony, frustration and exhilaration. Strict Joy is the pair’s second release as the Swell Season, but it’s their first made under the shadow of outside expectations and the accompanying threat of compromise. Hansard and Irglová rise to the challenge, making good on the promises that they, perhaps unwittingly, made with their little film. “Low Rising” sets the tone, recalling Hansard’s previous cinematic experience as the guitarist in The Commitments by opening the album with the mournful determination of soul music. As melancholy horns blow low and easy, a clean electric guitar flutters as counterpoint to Hansard’s insistence that even the barest uplift would improve on a situation which simply couldn’t get any worse. There’s plenty more acoustic melancholia to be found. Hansard sings and strums so delicately on “In These Arms” that he ends up playing the guitar pick as much as the strings themselves. (Delicate though it may be, it still doesn’t stop him from calling the man to whom he’s lost his woman an asshole.) Lovely closer “Back Broke” begins so quietly that Hansard’s essentially whispering the lyrics, with Irglová’s piano plinking out a countermelody to a 13-syllable “here” before she casually fades in to harmonize with him. The song doesn’t get louder so much as other instruments simply move forward. “Paper Cup” and “High Horses,” on the other hand, are too low-key to do much of anything at all. Strict Joy offers little vocally to compare to the magnificent gorgeousness of the harmonies of “Falling Slowly” or the almost mystical fervor of “When You’re Mind’s Made Up.” (Anyone hoping that the album would betray evidence of the dissolution of Hansard and Irglová’s romantic partnership while their professional partnership remained intact might find it in that, if they squint hard enough.) Instead, Irglová mostly remains steadfastly in the background in support of Hansard, stepping into the spotlight for two songs, including the nearly one-chord “I Have Loved You Wrong.” Pulled along by a reflective piano and a fluid and unchanging bass line grinding slowly forward over soft drums, it sounds like Nicolette Larson covering Stereolab, and it’s stunning. The Swell Season comes together most effectively on “The Rain.” Strumming his acoustic, Hansard addresses promises made, and possibly best left unkept, before Irglová joins him on the bridge. The song picks up momentum, dives deeper and becomes sublime. It’s tough enough for anyone to capture a series of extraordinary moments in full view of their audience—with Strict Joy, the Swell Season has now done it twice.