Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Currents & Contour Lines: Lisa Hannigan's At Swim

Lisa Hannigan's new album At Swim was recorded in New York and largely inspired by an extended stay in London. Instead of revelling in the big city atmosphere, though, Hannigan spends most of this LP torn, struggling to choose between the heady fun of a foreign metropolis and the cosy comfort of home. Opening track Fall gives us a taste of the illicit thrills and vibrant unknowns to be had in places like London or NYC...

"Drain the spirits from the jars, hop the fences, steal the cars, run on fumes and from the law, burn for us right through the fall"

...but the singer herself never sounds entirely ready to commit, to book a plane ticket and make a bee line for the life she's describing. Over the course of At Swim's eleven tracks, we hear several references to feeling lost or adrift or 'off course', and the emotional heft of this album hinges on that idea of being unsure where you're heading, or even where you want to be heading.

As you bob through the bewitching sea-fog that Hannigan and her musical collaborators conjure here, you begin to hear a longing, a craving for some kind of direction. Several songs express a desire to be told - or shown - the best route to take; "carry me out, up and away," sings Hannigan on Undertow, hoping that the river in which she floats will pick a suitable destination and carry her there on its current.

"Take me under, take me home...I want to float everywhere I go."

This yearning for direction occasionally manifests as - and may even be a metaphor for - a relationship that is losing its way, but more often we hear Hannigan looking for a literal, visible guide: a line to follow, or an arrow to point the way. Here's an excerpt from the lyrics of Snow:

"We were looking to find in the feathered sky the contour line from summer to Christmas time"

And here's another from Tender:

"Tethered, like a mirror image, a cup and string message, one to the other"

There's even a literal line running through the pages of the lyric booklet that comes with the CD:

It is a through line like this that Lisa Hannigan is searching for, and the tone grows increasingly ominous the longer it takes her to find it. On the doomy We, The Drowned, those who constantly wander through life without ever finding anywhere to settle are portrayed as drowned souls who spent too long adrift and never saw land again.

Meanwhile, the prospect of returning home grows warmer and more inviting as the album goes on. Anahorish, a beautiful a cappella arrangement of a Seamus Heaney poem, will have you feeling nostalgic for your hometown in Ireland even if you've never been to Ireland, while the gorgeous Ora announces "I'm going home - won't you come with me?"

At Swim was produced by Aaron Dessner, who also worked the desk for Sharon Van Etten's stunning Are We There. While Lisa Hannigan's album doesn't have a devastating gut-punch like Your Love is Killing Me or a big pop moment like Every Time the Sun Comes Up, it does bear some resemblance to my favourite Are We There track, Tarifa: it's a melancholy listen, but it has a warmth that makes you feel like you could almost climb inside the music and curl up to rest. In the end, it's an album about going home, about shunning the allure of the unknown and sticking with that frayed relationship because, as Hannigan puts it on closing track Barton: "broken as it is, this is a love."

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