Album review: Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming

Squirrel Flower

Squirrel Flower - Credit: Archant

A debut record of striking lyrical clarity and musical poise.

Ella O'Connor Williams picked Squirrel Flower as an alter ego when at school, and the 23-year-old singer-songwriter is evidently still rather fond of it. Well, it's memorable and Google-friendly, so why not?

The daughter of a touring jazz and blues musician and granddaughter of classical musicians who lived in an artists' co-operative, Williams arguably has melody in her blood, and she took songcraft seriously enough to study it academically and throw herself into Boston's DIY folk music scene.

Her debut long-player reveals her as a thoughtful writer, picking over relationships to throw up uncomfortable truths, abstract perspectives and playful poetics. It's the intoxicating mix of artful songcraft and catchy chord manoeuvres that really makes the record stand out.

Recorded with minimal overdubs, it feels fresh and alive - lead single Red Shoulder puts you right there with her in the Rare Book Room Studio in NYC, the glowering and visceral guitar soundtracking a relationship's descent from soft and tender to warped and sinister.

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Lyrically and musically the record shifts and flexes through its 12 tracks, from steely to vulnerable, but always evocative and rarely without the soulful, glow worm hum of Williams' electric guitar, the perfect foil for her light and exacting vocal. Fans of Sharon van Etten will find much to love here.

Streetlight Blues is perfectly downbeat, conjuring Jenny Lewis' convincing way with pop-rock melody and poetic, observational lyricism ("Bugs in the streetlight, our time is over soon," she laments over gloaming guitar), while the gentle lilt and brushed percussion of Seasonal Affective Disorder evokes the simple wonder of the natural world.

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In Home, a lone guitar tip-toes around Williams' tender painting of a conflicted child addressing a parent, flitting effortlessly between evocations of love, gratitude, vulnerability and pain, while the title track bookends the record, a tantalising 98-second ditty with nothing but a carefully-plucked acoustic guitar to accompany her beautifully pale, quivering depiction of her own birth, arriving into this world still floating in amniotic fluid ("Can you see me shimmer, so deeply in the water?").

Born Swimming is an impressively accomplished, mature and evocative record - one which surely puts Williams on a path to greatness.

4/5 stars

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