When Lisa Hannigan initially set out to compose songs for her third studio album a few years ago, it didn’t take long for a restless stasis to emerge. “I was definitely veering towards depresh mode at times,” Hannigan recently confided to The Irish Times. “I never really had that moment where I would feel I had some shiny thing at the end of the day. A lot of days I would just feel like I had dust. I started to really lose sight of what the point of me was. I was thinking, maybe I should go back to college and be a vet or something.”
Demanding expectations of herself and her work arguably contributed to her stagnation. Over the past fifteen years, the Dublin-born, Kilcloon-bred Hannigan has cultivated an acclaimed résumé, beginning with her notable contributions to fellow Irish singer-songwriter and ex-boyfriend Damien Rice’s first two LPs, O (2002) and 9 (2006).
Galvanized by the solid reputation she garnered through these collaborations, she inevitably embarked upon a solo recording career following the dissolution of her personal and professional relationship with Rice. Her excellent 2008 debut album Sea Sew was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, and the stellar, Joe Henry-produced Passenger followed three years later in 2011.
An unexpected correspondence last year thankfully breathed new life into her creative spirits. Aaron Dessner, primarily known as a founding member of The National, emailed Hannigan out of the blue and expressed interest in making music with her. “We know some of the same people but we’d never met,” Hannigan explained to the Evening Standard. “I’ve actually never asked him what the instigation was. But I said, ‘Yes please, this is amazing.’ I love his band. He started sending me all these pieces of music, I started singing on them, and that was the turning point.”
The turning point subsequently came to fruition in the form of At Swim, Hannigan’s third and strongest album to date. Co-produced by Dessner, who met with Hannigan in Denmark and Ireland to craft the album’s direction, and ultimately recorded in a converted church in New York, At Swim’s eleven tracks each unfurl in thrilling fashion, revealing multi-textured soundscapes and goosebump-inducing vocal flourishes in abundance. Thematically, it’s a markedly existential record, throughout which Hannigan navigates the dichotomies between connection and detachment, hope and despair, love and loss.
Co-written by Henry, the acoustic guitar-driven album opener and second single “Fall” alludes to the push-and-pull of the human struggle, while showcasing the versatility of Hannigan’s lilting, and at times soaring, vocals. Reminiscent of the stark, subdued fare of American indie rock stalwarts Low and Yo La Tengo, with a touch of classic country charm evocative of the iconic Patsy Cline, plaintive lead single “Prayer for the Dying” is nothing short of sublime, with Hannigan’s soothing voice elevated to the forefront.
Other highlights include “Anahorish,” a stunning a cappella rendering of the late Irish poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s poem of the same name. The shimmering, contemplative “Snow” will make you yearn for the approaching winter months, as Hannigan softly croons her ruminations of “Watching the snow falling down / Watching the city lose color and sound.”
Containing echoes of Lamb and Lou Rhodes’ most captivating work, closing track “Barton” couples a minimalist electro-ambience with Hannigan’s hushed whispers for a stirring climax to the affair. The somber, piano-driven “Funeral Suit,” hypnotic “Lo,” and propulsive “Undertow” all qualify as standouts as well.
As evidenced by the enchanting, exquisitely executed At Swim, Hannigan’s songs continue to evolve with unparalleled grace and understated power in equal measure. One listen to this hauntingly gorgeous, unequivocal triumph of an album and you’ll be basking in its ceaseless afterglow, compelled to listen again and again and again.
Notable Tracks: “Anahorish” | “Fall” | “Prayer for the Dying” | “Snow”