- 02 Aug 16
IRISH STAR DELIVERS HER BEST ALBUM YET
By any standards, Lisa Hannigan has enjoyed an extremely successful solo career since stepping out of Damien Rice’s shadow almost a decade ago.
Her 2008 debut album, Sea Sew, went double platinum and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. The 2011 follow-up, Passenger, went straight to No 1 in Ireland and was shortlisted for the Choice Prize.
By her own admission, Lisa was initially struggling to write new material, after coming off two years of touring the world in support of Passenger. So she put her energy into other projects. There was an acting debut as a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea, soundtrack work on Fargo and the Oscar-winning score for Gravity, all the while founding and co-hosting the acclaimed Soundings podcast (which saw the Dublin-born singer turn interviewer, and speak to guests like Harry Shearer, Sharon Horgan and David Arnold).
Even so, five years is a long break to take between albums, especially in a fast-moving world in which many music careers don’t even last that long. Her new creative breakthrough came when she received an out of the blue email from Aaron Dessner, guitarist with The National and producer for the likes of Local Natives and Sharon Van Etten, suggesting that they work together. Having initially exchanged ideas over email, the pair finally met up to demo some songs in Denmark. At Swim was then recorded in a week, in a church in Hudson, New York.
It must have been quite some week – because this is a truly stunning collection. Her two previous albums often tended to playfully hop, skip and jump between musical styles. However, expertly produced by Dessner, the eleven tracks featured on At Swim are all quite darkly focused: the mood is steadily sad, wistful and melancholic throughout. Some tracks build and build, but often there’s just a spiritually sparse piano or organ and drumbeats and loops so subtle that you barely even notice them as backing.
Given the title, it’s unsurprising that there are many lyrical images of water – but there’s nothing wishy washy about them. On haunting first cut ‘Prayer For The Dying’, she sounds like Patsy Cline as – full of vulnerability – she croons the lament, “A prayer for the dying/ for the waves coming in/ and washing the edges/ away from within.”
On ‘Ora’, she suggests, “You’ll be the boat/ and I’ll be the sea/ won’t you come with me.” Then there’s ‘Undertow’: “I want to swim in your current/ carry me out, up and away/ I want to float on every word you say.” Midway through the album, she does a truly beautiful acapella version of the famous Seamus Heaney poem ‘Anahorish’: “My place of clear water/ the first hill in the world...”
Her voice – and Lisa has most definitely found her voice superbly on this outing – has never sounded more gorgeous than it does on ‘Tender’: “Tender as a loose tooth/ askew at the root/ my love.” Her new man makes an appearance on ‘Funeral Suit’: “He came by in his funeral suit/ in an open-hearted shade of blue/ and asked me what I like to do/ on a July evening/ To Bermondsey or Shoreditch/ I said I don’t know which is which.”
Album closer ‘Barton’ is a slow burner, underscored with increasingly pulsing beats, that sees her singing, “Broken as it is... this is a love.”
These are understated songs of love, loss and longing, coming from a far more mature, thoughtful and confident artist than witnessed on previous outings. It might have been five years coming, but At Swim is easily Lisa Hannigan’s greatest work to date.