It’s been seven years since Lisa Hannigan debut album See Sew was released to widespread critical acclaim, and since then she’s become one of Ireland’s most unique voices. Rooted in folk, there’s been a richness to her output which elevates it that little bit higher than the recent resurgence in the genre. In short, there’s mandolin but it’s not pile driven into your ear hole.
Poseidon has been a muse for Hannigan in the past, the sea, boats and nautical imagery in general often pop up in her songs. Where previously water represented an escape route to adventure, optimism and hope on At Swim it’s something to be weary of. An unnerving sense of just how helpless a person can be in water permeates this record.
At Swim sees the singer team up with Aaron Dessner, guitarist with The National. His influence is immediately apparent. On See Sew and Passenger there was a sense of space between each individual instrument. At Swim takes a different approach, the instrumentation is more condensed – almost separate to the vocals. The lyrical theme of water reflected in the backing tracks acting as a kind of murky undercurrent powerfully propelling the record along, enhancing the clarity in the tone of that voice.
Opener ‘Fall’ lays down a marker for the dark, defiant lyrics throughout the record, its acoustic shuffle eases you in nicely. ‘A Prayer for the Dying’ is a haunting threnody, subtle production values leaving the floor to Hannigan’s beautiful vocal.
The rhythmically hypnotic ‘Lo’ is built around descending guitar and back beat handclaps, if this song were an image it would be one of a tossed coin disappearing down a deep wishing well (in slow motion of course). There’s more than a hint of hip-hop to ‘Undertow’ – nothing too flashy mind, think some of the Wu Tang Clan’s more lo-fi output with a little banjo and you’d be surprised how close you are.
At Swim has no fat, each song keeps itself afloat. Even so its real merit lies in being played in full; this record flows best as one complete body. In an age when iTunes and Spotify rule and every piece of music you own can be accessed with a flick of your thumb releasing a record like At Swim is a bold statement. Only an artist with genuine depth can be brave enough to challenge listeners to commit to an album as a whole rather than consuming little bite sized chunks. With At Swim Hannigan has done just that, and it’s a thoroughly satisfying meal.