Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

First published on www.13thfloor.co.nz

Irish multi-instrumentalist singer Lisa Hannigan initially found her feet playing with Damien Rice.  That was back a bit when she was but knee high to a grass hopper.  Now older and wiser (she’s 35), with two confident solo albums (the double-platinum, Mercury-nominated debut Sea Sew and Irish #1 Passenger) under her belt her sound is mature and confident way beyond her years.

With producer Aaron Dessner (The National) at the knobs her third effort is exceptional, and explicitly beguiling.  It’s a bewitching slice of gothic folk poetry that has a distinctive European film noir atmosphere to it and I love it.

Having no clue who she was before the moment the simply constructed Fall seeped out of my headphones, I was utterly distracted.  Hannigan’s voice is not especially unique but her slightly smoky Gaelic lilt is incredibly seductive as it transverse deliciously simple chords and strings.  It hints those we’ve encountered previously, such as Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine), kd lang or the Unthank Sisters.

The first single is Prayer For The Dying inspired by the death of a friend’s parent passing of a friend’s parent after an extended is beautifully haunting, almost as if Kristin Hersh, in her Your Ghost-era had gifted the song.  It’s like an old Patsy Cline lament mixed with Throwing Muses and some Over The Rhine front room swagger.  The reverberating, shimmering chorus (“Your heart, my heart”) sends tingles down the spine.

In contrast, Snow is more upbeat but still simple, mainly guitars and piano.  Between the lyrics, the mood and beat you can imagine a winter’s train ride through a large, vast open plain, with only memories to comfort (“Song like treasure” … “heading from city to sea, we watch the cities go by”).  Its hook-laden, stealthily creeping up on you.

Given all this, Hannigan sounds like she’s at the top of her game.  But after playing in support of Passenger for nearly two years, she hit the wall, enduring writer’s block.  Plus a new relationship meant that she was dividing her time between Dublin and London.  Adrift and lost, she threw herself into distraction instead.  She voiced a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea, undertook some soundtrack work for the Fargo TV show and contributed to the Oscar-winning score for the film Gravity.  And, to add further procrastinations started up the popular Soundings podcasts which put Hannigan in the interviewer/host’s seat interviewing guests such as Harry Shearer, Sharon Horgan and David Arnold.

It was only an email from Dessner, scouting for work, that got her back into the studio.  Hannigan was missing the collaboration spirit of her earlier Dublin days.  Initially, they exchanged ideas by email and iPhone but the full album only came together when both finally met up in Denmark.

Later, the full recording took place in a church in Hudson, New York, during a furious seven-day stint.  The echoes you hear on songs like We The Drowned and the homely a capella of Anahorish are from the resonance of the wooden rafters and stone walls.   In some ways it has the same magical dust as Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, minus the menacing undertow.

The resulting album, inevitably, is about homesickness, isolation, death and consolation but move profoundly, it’s above the love we receive during these times.

Throughout you can’t escape the metaphors of a career and a soul lost-at-sea.  Only the slight tango of Tender refuses to show any vulnerabilities in the cold water of a strong current.

But despite all these morbid references this is not a morose album.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Songs like closer Barton, with its Sunday morning organ rally gives you a sense that Hannigan has struck her claim on a distant island, standing strong like Anna in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, out on the causeway, defying the buffering waves (“I’ll be on my own a while smiling like a crocodile”, you can see for miles….”).

So by the end it’s clear that Hannigan is strong enough to swim any straits.  She’s not only treading water again but can easily reach the shore and moreover, she’s beginning to enjoy the dip.  This is, I think her strongest work.  It’s confident, it shows vulnerability and it show cases a wonderful natural voice, whilst referencing all the alt-country music I love.  A great effort.

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