Album of the Week: Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming

By Craig Howieson

It’s hard to look at our lives and measure how far we have come, the people we have been, the roles we’ve fulfilled as we’ve grown. The footsteps that take us out of our adolescence are not those we often consider.  Blinded by the excitement of limitless possibilities, there exists an overarching desire to shift the car into gear and gun it out onto the open road without pausing for thought. With hindsight it is a transitionary stage we would do well to consider more closely, taking careful note of the paths we disturb as we tread out into the frosty, hostile world. 

Squirrel Flower, the stage name of Boston’s Ella O’Connor Williams, sings with an old soul. Her voice is laden with the past but held within it is a tender defiance; an assurance that the shapes she carves in the sand will not be easily blown away. Carrying with her the musical heritage of her family (Williams father plays bass on the album) her debut ‘I Was Born Swimming’ arrives with a road worn knowledge and nuance. 

Bearing the fluid lucidity of a breath released underwater Williams experiments through various guises on ‘I Was Born Swimming’. From the half-lit dream pop and decaying reverb of ‘Headlights’ to the tarmac melting southern rock of ‘Street Light Blues’ her roaming nature mirrors the theme of self-discovery. There is a realization that finding ourselves is not a simple step from youth into adulthood. It is instead an ever-continuing challenge, an endless pursuit for contentment as we grow older and our perceptions and expectations shift. On ‘Headlights’ as Williams sings “Realize I’m not getting older / But I’m not getting younger / Headlights look different / When I’m looking over my shoulder”, there are hints of a strained relationship with the past, and an uncertainty as to whether it has been learned from. Time skews perceptions in such a way that it’s always hard to tell. Do we learn and get wiser, or just shift and adapt? 

The record contains within it a multitude of touch points, but Williams riot quieting voice (see the expert control with which she lets her voice soar against single strums of acoustic guitar on ‘Slapback’) and crushing lyrical guitar playing imbue her songs with such a unique quality that influences prove hard to place. There are hints of Angel Olsen in the dramatic opening of ‘I-80’, while the faintest touch of American Football can be heard on ‘Red Shoulder’ where emo flecked guitars feel like they will tumble and roll forever.

‘Honey, Oh Honey!’ splits the record down the middle, much in the same way as ‘100 Dollars’ does on Manchester Orchestras ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’. In a brief blast of Neutral Milk Hotel infused whimsy, it recalibrates the album for the second half. It is a second half introduced by the composure shattering ambience of ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, where wandering drums and hallucinatory twinges of guitar swarm and settle into the most tranquil of outro melodies. It is enough to bring peace to the most restless of souls.

On ‘I Was Born Swimming’ Williams is constantly in motion. Not treading water but navigating an untold expanse. As she charts cresting waves and allows herself to be dragged into dark pools, she creates a record that questions and evolves. Life can be restless, a constant search for what comes next. The only certainty is uncertainty and we learn to bend, or we break. Amidst this chaos ‘I Was Born Swimming’ feels like a true reflection of self.

The title of Squirrel Flowers record refers to the fact that Williams arrived in the world still held within the amniotic sac. She was literally born swimming. It would appear this is the way she is set to continue, foraying into the unknown and creating ripples into an unseen future. It is symbolism with which we can all relate. After all we came from the sea, and to the sea we shall return. Maybe that’s where we’ll find our own truth. 

‘I Was Born Swimming’ is out January 31 on Full Time Hobby (UK) & Polyvinyl

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