Release Date: Aug 19, 2016
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
It’s 14 years since Lisa Hannigan first came to attention as the second voice on Damien Rice’s debut, O, and five since her last album, Passenger. She is never in a rush, and her third album benefits enormously from a sense of stillness and serenity. Producer Aaron Dessner (from the National) has framed the Dublin-born singer’s crystal vocals in an understated, often hushed atmosphere.
The third studio long-player from the Irish singer/songwriter, the aptly named At Swim is a beguiling collection of aqueous and often elegiac indie folk ballads that seep syrup-slow into your bones, inducing both goosebumps and a teeth-chattering chill. Despite being written after a severe bout of wanderlust and writer's block that saw Hannigan globe-trotting for inspiration, the ten-track set is her most galvanized offering to date; a languid river of song that transcends its myriad watery metaphors via an adjacent undercurrent of morbidity and existential angst that suggests a real sea change. Produced with terrific restraint by the National's Aaron Dessner, At Swim is awash in plucky banjo, ethereal strings, offbeat percussion, and isolated, heavenly piano motifs that drop down into the drink like a kingfisher collecting its quarry.
An opening line like “Hold your horses, hold your tongue/Hang the rich but spare the young” is one to savour, and Dubliner Lisa Hannigan maintains an impressive lyrical standard throughout this third solo album. As titles like Prayer for the Dying and Funeral Suit suggest, the mood is often sombre, but well conjured by her double-tracked vocals. Lo is a restless drift through insomnia, Snow a hushed evocation of love (“You were the snow, I was the city”), and there’s an inspired, a cappella version of Seamus Heaney’s poem Anahorish.
They say a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. That axiom easily sums up Lisa Hannigan’s early career. Without the drama of her former professional (and personal) partner Damien Rice splitting with her on tour somewhere between soundcheck and the start of a gig, the gifted singer may never have taken the leap toward releasing her own solo work.
Dublin songwriter Lisa Hannigan first came bustling onto indie folk enthusiasts’ radars with the release of Sea Sew in 2009. Immediately lauded for personable lyricism and a thoughtful, delicate, and evocative delivery mostly centered between her lilting vocals and acoustic guitar, the folk artist saw further acclaim a couple of years later with Passenger. Five good years later, she’s back at it again with her third full-length studio record, At Swim, and this time around, she has seen a half-decade’s worth of positive artistic and personal meandering and development to create something that feels altogether familiar, yet different, for long-time listeners and newcomers alike.
Running through the song titles of Lisa Hannigan’s third album– ‘Prayer for the Dying’, ‘Funeral Suit’, ‘We, The Drowned’ to name a few – it quickly becomes apparent that the usually cheerful singer-songwriter has undergone something of a shift in disposition in the almost five years since we last head from her. Gone are the slightly twee 'plinky-plonky' sounds of her debut Sea Sew and the wide-eyed wonder and winking humour of her second effort Passenger. In its place we have lush, sparse arrangements courtesy of the National’s Aaron Dessner and cavernous spaces for introspection and soul searching.
Over the course of her three studio albums, Lisa Hannigan has deepened her folk sound. Her debut, Sea Sew (2008), was primarily a stripped-back folk-pop record, and in her follow-up Passenger (2011) she picked up these folk-pop threads and made her songs much richer with the help of a fuller backing band. Five years later, At Swim (produced by the National's Aaron Dessner), finds Hannigan once again expanding her folk sound, one that's sullen, string- and piano-heavy and sprawls out just enough to include light touches of electronic elements.At Swim is an incredibly soft record.
As with her first two records, At Swim favours stealth over force, and its subtleties demand repeated listens. There are no showcase tunes, or at least nothing with a hook large enough to immediately add to the loyal audience she won with 2008's debut Sea Sew. But Hannigan's oeuvre requires patience and focus, and while much of this new collection is dependent on tone and texture to connect, eventually deeper qualties shine through.