Irish singer songwriter Lisa Hannigan launched her solo career in 2008 with Sea Sew, a charming collection of quirky songs and splendid ballads featuring a colourful hand-stitched artwork cover. Her sophomore album Passenger (2011) was a more upbeat affair with a mixture of folk-rock songs and ukulele or mandolin-driven gems like “Knots”. After a five year hiatus which saw the musician contribute to several high profile soundtracks – Gravity (2013), Song of the Sea (2014) and an alternative version of “Danny Boy” for episode 7 of the second season of crime drama TV series Fargo (2015) – Lisa Hannigan returns with a sumptuous third album. The result of an invitation to collaborate that came out of the blue from The National’s Aaron Dressner, At Swim was released on 19th August 2016 last on the PIAS record label.
Lisa Hannigan contributed to several songs (including two versions of the title track in English and in Irish) on the enchanting animated international co-production Song of the Sea (2014) directed by Irish film maker Tomm Moore. The singer was also cast to voice the short part of Bronagh, the mother of a mute little girl named Saoirse. Like Saoirse, Bronagh is a selkie – a mythological sea creature in the Irish and Scottish traditions living as a seal in water but taking off her skin once on land to become human. She mysteriously disappears back into the sea at the beginning of the film after giving birth to her daughter.
The sea and water references are so numerous and the singing so bewitching that the singer still seems to inhabit the mythical creature throughout the entire record.
You’ll be the boat
And I’ll be the sea
Won’t you come with me (“Ora”)
I want to swim in your current
Carry me out, up and away
I want to float
On every word you say. (“Undertow”)
Stemming from a paralysing writer’s block inhibiting her creative flow while away from home in Paris and East London, At Swim is imbued with a sense of being adrift and expresses a yearning for stability (“Ora”). Turning to poets for inspiration and grounding, At Swim features an acapella version of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Anahorish” from Wintering Out originally published in 1972. There are many laments too like the poignant “Prayer for the Dying” with its keening harmonies.
This feeling of unease transpires not only in the lyrics but also in the overall sound of the album. Sustained by understated layers of guitars and piano (Aaron Dressner), Fender Rhodes (Thomas Bartlett), strings (André de Ridder, Yuki Numata Resnick on violin or Clarice Jensen on cello), drums (Ross Turner) and sparse electronic beats, Lisa Hannigan’s darker and almost austere voice ebbs and flows with an eerie floating quality. The singer’s entrancing melismatic style also shines on songs like “Snow” and on every guitar-led acoustic rendition of the record posted on YouTube.
Characterised by a consistent melancholic tone throughout, At Swim is a lot more sombre than previous releases. But the magnificent arrangements for songs like “Tender” for instance, the heartfelt song performances and the quality of the production all conjure up a remarkable spine-tingling collection.