[Play It Again Sam]
I met Lisa Hannigan once, in the literary tent at Electric Picnic. I’m a fan so I asked her how the new album was coming along. Her eyes bulged slightly and she took a sharp intake of breath before saying something non-committal. That was 2013; we were closer to Passenger than we were to At Swim.
Hannigan’s startled reaction makes sense considering the difficulties she faced in making her third record. Profound writer’s block and unrest in her personal life led her to Paris and London for inspiration and a number of diverting side projects. It wasn’t until Aaron Dessner came on board as producer that the album began to take shape.
Before the National guitarist emailed her out of the blue, Hannigan’s continuous writing had yielded nothing, and as such he is presented by Hannigan as her saviour, but his presence has proven catalytic if not inspirational. At Swim still sounds like toil and embodies those lean, dispiriting post-Passenger years with its stark musical palette.
It is a bare, verging on barren, record. There’s some piano, acoustic guitar, the odd stab of electric guitar, but the focus remains squarely on Hannigan. Her voice is a unique and versatile instrument with a broad textural range that lends itself very well to multi-layered harmonising. The way she contorts her words obscures her message sometimes, which is disappointing considering her lyrics are At Swim’s most consistently pungent element.
Whereas Passenger and in particular Sea Sew made room for levity, At Swim is Hannigan’s darkest effort to date. Dessner’s production is unshowy and unadorned, intensifying the bereft, hollowed-out feeling that envelops many of Hannigan’s words. After years spent at a loss, Hannigan has only herself to offer without distraction.
The transcendent moments are few and far between, but they stand out against the album’s otherwise forgettable, workmanlike consistency. First single ‘Fall’ is a beauty, built on a folk melody that gravitates between languid and intense. Despite its seeming simplicity it is packed like a Russian nesting doll, drawing the listener in with a threatening yet rustic air and boasting a widescreen atmosphere that gives it scope but also focuses the listener’s attention on the main thread.
Hannigan sings with a thick, dripping whisper, while arcane imagery and calls to violence (“Hang the rich and spare the young”) give the song a palpable danger. It’s a confounding song as it isn’t very dynamic or surprising, but the melody is unbeatable, and the song shifts in intensity with grace and beauty.
‘Prayer for the Dying’ and ‘Anahorish’ (an a cappella rendition of the Seamus Heaney poem) indulge in Sean Nós-style balladry. The former is a lamentable, metronomic funeral march that hangs solely on Hannigan’s quivering vocal performance. It’s easy to imagine it being performed in a dark corner of a pub, and the aul’ fellas might turn around to see Hannigan hit a celestial note but they’d be met by the sight of a tired backing band going through the motions.
Similarly elegiac in tone is ‘We, The Drowned’, which competes with ‘Prayer For The Dying’ and ‘Funeral Suit’ for the crown of At Swim’s most depressing song title. Hannigan, singing in her deeper register, is complemented by an off-kilter piano and deep, lurking brass while the warmer ‘Funeral Suit’ has a lolloping energy that makes for a charming, makeshift peak. Both sound like they’re supposed to be cornerstones of the album, the Big Numbers, the would-be anthems, but they feel incomplete. They’re subtle when they should be triumphant and thick with intrigue. Hannigan leans into the climactic key changes without the backing she needs. These are moments earmarked for catharsis, but she is out on her own leaving her band behind in their pleasant stupor.
‘Lo’ buzzes along with a nervous energy, the banjo-led ‘Undertow’ is contemplative (“I want to sink now like a stone / you never lost me, you’ll never know”) but reaches a dead end, and ‘Tender’ has a flamenco-like flair but still leaves no impression.
The stronger songs serve to emphasise the rest of the record’s chronic slightness. ‘Snow’ sounds like a photograph. It is a wistful, nostalgic look back at a relationship in unspoken crisis, and one of the few songs that is enhanced by Dessner’s natural restraint. Raindrop arpeggios and cresting strings complete the painful image Hannigan paints of an isolating moment in her life.
At Swim concludes with ‘Barton’, a wild (but welcome) digression. It is not Hannigan’s ‘Beth/Rest’ by any stretch, but the electronic ambience is notable and the use of sampler pads is very surprising and, thankfully, arresting. The synthetic shell gives a harder edge to a despondent Hannigan (“Broken as it is / This is a low”) and shows a way she might progress outside of her trademark sound.
‘Ora’, however, proves that she can still pull off stunning successes working within her comfort zone. A foggy piano riff is perfect on its own, but the bewitching swirl of strings and distant voices give this siren song a powerful dream-like logic that could lead anyone to gladly sleepwalk into the abyss.