Lisa Hannigan Drifts to Dark Yet Beautiful Places on At Swim
  • FRIDAY, AUGUST 19, 2016

  • Posted by: Robert Steiner

RATING: 4.5/5 STARS



One of the hardest things for an artist, or anyone for that matter, to do is to take struggle, pain, and the negative aspects of life and channel them into something beautiful and deeply meaningful. If it's done right, it can make for some truly memorable art that stands the test of time and connects with an innumerable amount of people. With At Swim, Lisa Hannigan has taken her personal struggles and, simply put, has made one of the best albums of 2016.

I was lucky enough to interview Hannigan in preparation for At Swim, and she explained that the album came together after a five-year period of writer's block, which came about due to homesickness without a home to go to and generally feeling lost in the world. The feeling of drifting and loneliness are very prominent on the singers third record, as it contains a darker, more intense and subdued sound than her previous two records, 2008's Sea Sew and 2011's Passenger. If she had not told me about her writer's block and I listened to this record, I would never have guessed there were creative issues going by the music. Never do the album's 12 tracks sound forced or like someone who's running on creative fumes, and in fact sound quite the opposite.

With the National's Aaron Dessner serving as producer, the album features some really well done instrumentation that's potent yet simplistic in execution, and gives plenty of space for Hannigan's delicate vocals to breathe in the mix. Hannigan told me that Dessner described his production technique as letting the music "stir," which essentially means the vocals stay front-and-center while everything else stays back, focusing on texture and building atmosphere rather than distinct melody. The result is slightly more sparse instrumentation compared to Hannigan's previous albums, but you can still hear that plenty of detail and care that went into the arrangements. Songs like "Ora," "Barton," and "Funeral Suit" contain that heavy and all-absorbing ambient sound the National are known for, but rather than Matt Berningers baritone vocals, you have Hannigans equally distinct and memorable voice completing the tracks. But even with Dessners added creative input, the album still has that folk charm that made Hannigan stand out so well in the first place, best shown on tracks like "Snow," "Lo," and "Anahorish," with just with a little more ambience and somberness.

Other highlights from include "Fall," the album's opener and second single. A song about running away but unsure exactly to where, it's a deeply emotional and melancholy introduction to the record, and gives you a good idea of what this album is all about. My favorite track would have to be either "Lo" or "Undertow," but I think the latter just edges out the former by a small margin, as it's an introspective, borderline-frightening track about sinking into the darkness that features some really interesting instrument choices (i.e. drum machine and banjo in the same track) and entrancing vocal layering by Hannigan. That said, "Lo" is also a standout track with its intricate guitar work and simple yet gripping drumbeat. "Prayer For the Dying" and "We, the Dammed" are far and away the most haunting and gripping tracks on the record, which is saying a lot since the entire the record has a shroud of blackness about it. Both tracks feature Hannigan's usually timid vocals at their most convicted and powerful, emulating years' worth of deep emotional strife with every hanging note. The album as a whole, in fact, does a great job at exemplifying Hannigan's ability to hit all the right emotional chords with her vocal delivery. At times, her vocals are youthful and calm, other times they are sorrowful and evocative, but at all times, they are passionate, vulnerable, and wonderfully unique.

Even with the majority of songs being minimalistic slow burns, which is a surefire way to grind a record to a halt if slow tunes come one after the other, the album never at any point felt long or repetitive. If anything, I wouldn't have minded hearing one or two more tracks, and that fact that my one big critique of this record is that I wish it was longer is probably a good sign. At Swim is easily one of the most stunning and emotive albums to come out this year, and Hannigan succeeds in encapsulating the feelings of loneliness and aimlessness with incredible potency. If you have ever felt lost in some way in your life, you will find something to connect with in this album, and that is simply the best kind of art you could ask for. This is a record that drifts to deep and dark places, but it's a journey youll want to take until the very end.
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