Artist: Lisa Hannigan
Album: At Swim
In Brief: A mellow, soothing, and at times hauntingly beautiful collection of songs. Lisa’s hushed indie folk approach is subtle enough, and her lyrics are abstract enough, that her songs might not impress you right away, but they set the perfect mood for a rainy day spent curled up with a book or a late night de-stressing session.
If I asked you to name an Irish musician, just off the top of your head, who would come to mind? U2? Van Morrison? Enya? Sinéad O’Connor? The Corrs? I tend to think of Celtic music when I think of the country, but it’s limiting to assume that an artist from the Ireland must necessarily make music in that genre – it’d be like assuming an artist recorded country or bluegrass music simply because they were from the southern United States. Perhaps if you were into indie folk music well before I took an interest in the genre, you might say Damien Rice. That would be the example that gets you closest to the artist I’m going to discuss today, Lisa Hannigan, who got her start as a member of Rice’s touring band and a backing vocalist on a few of his records before starting her own solo career in the late 2000s. I didn’t know of her work until the beginning of this year, when her third album At Swim was recommended to me. And it’s the kind of record that’s taken a long time to fully sink in (pun not… okay, pun kind of intended) to the point where I actually feel ready to review it.
While I know nothing of Hannigan’s style on previous recordings, I can say that she’s the type of artist who seems to open up very slowly, like a friend you make who seems rather shy and says little the first few weeks or even months you know them, but who reveals a wealth of deep thoughts and creative perspectives on the world once they’re comfortable enough with you to let you into their inner thought process. The songs on At Swim, by and large, are not flashy, with most of them floating by slowly on the simple strum of an acoustic guitar or some delicate piano chords, maybe with some modest, folksy instrumentation filling out the background, maybe even occasionally with some unexpected electronic undertones, but usually letting the quietness of an unfussy arrangement speak for itself. Her lilting voice is soothing enough to draw you into the record, but figuring out what she’s actually singing about can take some effort at times.
For people like me who mentally map out a record first by noting variances in tempo and instrumentation, and who later pick up on more subtle bits of background ambiance and what the lyrics have to say beyond just the choruses, hushed singer/songwriter records can be a bit of a tough sell. As much as I may find the idea of an unpretentious artist getting back to basics and baring their soul without needing a big production posse to gussy it all up for radio, at heart I’m more of a pop/rock guy, who enjoys a catchy chorus and a wall of sound. There are so many laid-back singer/songwriters out there vying for my attention that it’s hard to know which ones to invest in. I can listen to a lot of albums in this genre and come away thinking “the songs all sound the same”. Lisa Hannigan ended up keeping my attention not by doing anything super-flashy, but by putting just enough of a personal fingerprint on the genre that I’m intrigued to keep digging for those details that aren’t necessarily designed to be noticed the first time around.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about At Swim is that it’s a mostly down-tempo record with a lot of minor key and seemingly gloomy songs, yet any “haunting” qualities it may have aren’t due to depressing lyrics or any harsh or dissonant sounds working their way into the mix. I want to say it’s almost funereal at times, but in the way that funerals are designed to provide comfort and closure to the living as they lay the deceased to rest, not in the way that tells you everything is death and darkness and meaninglessness. And due to how delicately textured Lisa’s vocals are, especially when she stacks up multiple layers of them, it can be downright angelic. Befitting the title, water imagery comes up in several of these songs, making it easy to picture a grey sky softly watering a pastoral landscape that needs it to retain the deep green hues it’s famous for, or a centuries-old city enveloped in a gentle snowfall. Rather than any Celtic musician being a go-to comparison here, I’m reminded of the moments on records by The Civil Wars that aren’t soaked in unresolved romantic tension, or the duskiness of a few Over the Rhine ballads, or even the more subdued, introspective side of Katie Herzig at times. (Some of those comparisons come to mind due to the vocals more so than the musical style.) Listening to this record feels sort of like spending some time adrift at sea, trying to find yourself, and then being welcomed home by the familiar embrace of a grandparent or a spouse or a best friend you’ve known from childhood. This record isn’t here to demand your attention; it’s here to offer a cup of home-brewed tea and a sympathetic ear when you need it most.
If you were to read the lyrics of this first track without knowing what it sounded like (and if you went in knowing nothing about Hannigan’s music), you’d probably assume from its tale of youth in rebellion that it would be some sort of a defiantly up-tempo rock song. If you were to listen to the song without really paying attention to the lyrics, you’d probably find the relaxed acoustic strumming and sweetly layered vocals to be so disarming that you’d be surprised upon reading the lyrics later. More than just singing this wistful anthem about young people recklessly running ahead, she seems to be caressing each note of it, almost as if it’s a nostalgic look back at those days when we were all too headstrong to fully think through the consequences our actions would have on the future.
2. Prayer for the Dying
This gentle, mournful song feels like it’s meant to be the thematic centerpiece of the album, and it’s a great example of how Lisa can say a lot with relatively little. The slow piano chords, softly brushed drums, and maybe a little bit of slide guitar give it an ethereal feel that is complemented wonderfully by her warm vocals, with slightly eerie wobbles in the melody here and there just to give it some extra character. Written for a friend’s mother who was dying of a terminal illness, there are very few lyrics here, so the song gives more of an impression than a direct message. The chorus simply repeats, “Your heart, my heart”, as if to softly celebrate the bond between a woman and her husband and all the life they shared together as she slowly passes into the great beyond.
Parts of this album were recorded in London and New York City, where Lisa experienced a bit of homesickness as she moved back and forth between either place and her home in Dublin. This song pretty effectively captures the feeling of being a small speck in a vast, unfamiliar city as it gets blanketed in a snowstorm. There’s a quiet grace to it and also a bit of melancholy. I fell in love pretty quickly with its starkly beautiful finger-picked guitar melody, complemented by piano, strings, a light, swaying rhythm, and of course another heavenly vocal. When she sings the simple words “Sunk like treasure” again and again in the chorus, I get the feeling that no matter how overwhelming the storm was, she was determined to find beauty in these cold and alienating places that she would slowly learn to call her home away from home.
The two-letter title of this song might just win a prize for “folksiest song title ever”. (Either that or some long-winded either/or title that Sufjan Stevens cooked up.) It actually sounds to me like she’s singing “Yo” instead of “Lo” in this song’s one word chorus, but that doesn’t really make much of a difference, since I can’t really make much sense of the lyrics anyway. They seem to be lamenting some sort of deception that she’s either been carrying on for far too long, or has been a victim of… they’re very much open to interpretation. The big draw for me here is that it’s one of the few more rhythmic songs on the album, with the glistening 12-string guitars, bass, and handclaps giving the song a light but steady backbeat to build off of. I love how the guitar melody seems to be continually shifting chords here – it sounds like a simple pattern, but I bet it’s a pain to play. I can imagine walking into some Irish pub and hearing a local folk band playing this sort of a song, even though it isn’t full-on Celtic music. It feels like a storybook is coming to life when I listen to this one, and it emerged pretty much instantly as my favorite track on the album.
Some subtle electronic elements – possibly a repeated sample of a single note from some sort of a horn instrument – repeat throughout this song, giving it a strange, robotic motion that immediately stands out from the rest of the record. There’s a bit of banjo thrown in there, too, making it far and away the record’s quirkiest song. I love how she stretches the word “float” into several syllables here – Lisa’s not a particularly show-offy vocalist, but she can make a simple word or phrase really stand out with this trick from time to time. The lyrics, while subtle, seem to be expressing a wish that she could sneak into the listener’s subconscious via radio waves, perhaps lamenting that music as understated and eccentric as hers doesn’t stand much of a chance in the mainstream. It’s a gift to those of us who don’t mind wandering further out from shore, though.
The image of a sailor adrift at sea is presented to us at the beginning of this soft piano ballad, which has some quivering strings to add to the “watery” feel of it, but avoids bringing in percussion or really any other instruments, or doing anything intentionally climactic. It’s content to just float there and allow us to picture that endless expanse of bluish-gray water in all directions. It’s a song that seems to be quietly lost in thought, but not at all sad about it – her gentle reading of the lines “You’ll be the boat and
I’ll be the sea/Won’t you come with me?” makes them feel like a warm invitation despite the cold stillness of the musical atmosphere.
7. We, the Drowned
This might be the album’s most melancholy song. At first it’s easy to confuse it with some of the other stark piano ballads on the record, but listening closely to it, I’m struck by how it uses the horns and electric guitar for texture during its bridge, adding some darker shades to the song that lightly dances on the brink of madness, but then pulling back as if to respect the memory of the souls who died tragically at sea that she seems to be paying tribute to. The dark, poetic turn taken by the lyrics is a bit startling if you actually take the time to pay attention to them: “We, the ashes/We spend our days like matches/And burned ourselves as black as the end.” It’s interesting to juxtapose this song with “Fall”, as this one seems to more clearly regret the consequences of assuming you’ll live forever and being driven to an early grave by that headstrong attitude.
This song actually is poetry – Lisa has taken the words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney and brought them to life as an acapella interlude, with nothing but a few layers of her sweet voice singing in unison. It’s a fitting ode to a sacred place that apparently meant a lot to the writer – a quiet hill by a lake or river, from which one could survey the rain-drenched landscape. I love how Lisa’s voice turns interesting melodic corners befitting of the descriptive words such as “Soft gradient of consonant vowel-meadow.” In less than two minutes, she’s brought a whole array of lovely shades of blue and green to my mind’s eye.
This is the song that reminds me the most of Over the Rhine. One of the Cincinnati duo’s soft piano ballads dedicated to celebrating their unique love for each other as they slow-dance in a dimly-lit room would be a perfect compliment to what Hannigan has come up with here. The piano and strings seem to be orchestrating a dance between two people who alternate between showing tender love to each other and taking violent swings at each other than can hit the most tender and easily wounded parts of their psyches. Sometimes I think this is song is very romantic; other times I think it’s a bit sinister, like it’s describing a boxing match in slo-mo. Either way, it’s quite unique, easily the highlight of this album’s extremely introverted back half.
10. Funeral Suit
The downside of that “extremely introverted back half” is that there was bound to be a song somewhere in there that I didn’t find all that memorable. I can’t pinpoint a whole lot in particular that is “wrong” with this one; maybe I’m just familiar enough with the slow piano ballads that are largely atmosphere and don’t build to much of anything that this feels like a bit of a retread. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with the gentlemen who comes by in a nice suit on a summer evening – apparently he’s there to take her on a date, but did he actually just come from a funeral? (It would fit the mood of most of the record.) I suppose it could be a testament to the slow progress of a relationship that is meaningful to her, especially in the final verse, which I do think is quite well-written: “I am a cloud filament/We advance in tender increments/Between the past and future tense/Test the weight of both.” I also like how the upright bass is noticeable in this song. Still, most of its elements seem to be only loosely coalescing together, not forming as strong of a melody or a rhythm despite the steady “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3” provided by the piano.
The final song is a curiosity for sure – I don’t think there are any acoustic elements in it at all. It opens with a soft, synthesized hum that reminds me of the kind of tone poem you might hear in the mellower moments of a Sufjan Stevens record, and soon enough a skittering electronic beat can be heard, nudging the album out of folk territory and into ambient electronica. There is a guitar here, but it’s an electric used mostly for texture. Lisa’s vocals are once again quite ethereal, and perhaps the lyrics aren’t the strongest, nor do they give the record much of a sense of finality, but I like how the record sort of fades out on a dream sequence, as she repeats “Broken as it is, this is a love.” Throughout this record I’ve gotten the sense that she’s dealt with a lot of wandering and wondering where home is, and a lot of personal loss, and yet the prevailing mood seems to be that she’s at peace with it, which is definitely echoed in the album’s closing minutes.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Prayer for the Dying $1.50
We, the Drowned $1
Funeral Suit $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: