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Review: Lisa Hannigan, 'At Swim'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.


Lisa Hannigan, <em>At Swim </em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
/
Courtesy of the artist
Lisa Hannigan, At Swim

Lisa Hannigan was introduced to the world alongside fellow Irish singer Damien Rice, whose debut album O featured her lilting, haunting voice. In the nearly 15 years since, Hannigan has stepped ever more confidently into a leading role, most notably on her own Sea Sew (2008) and Passenger (2011), but also as a featured performer in the Oscar-winning score for the 2013 film Gravity.

Now Hannigan is releasing At Swim, her first album in five years, with a quiet assist from The National's Aaron Dessner. As the producer of Luluc's gorgeous 2014 album Passerby, Dessner is an ideal foil for Hannigan's lushly swooning voice. He lets songs breathe and unfurl at an appropriately unhurried pace — and is smart enough to get out of the way.

At Swim is a triumph of Hannigan's understated versatility, as a seemingly simple template morphs to make room for gracefully doomstruck ballads ("Prayer For The Dying," "Funeral Suit"), comparatively peppy midtempo numbers ("Snow," "Lo"), subtly glitchy and experimental sounds ("Undertow," "Barton") and a short, gorgeous swell of layered unaccompanied vocals ("Anahorish").

As a few of those song titles suggest (see also: "We, The Drowned"), At Swim doesn't exactly find Hannigan in a merry mood. The singer says she wrote the record after moving to London, where she'd struggled to find herself in a setting that wasn't suiting her. On this album she has no such trouble.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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