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AAA Music | 21 November 2019

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Lisa Hannigan – Passenger

| On 09, Oct 2011

Listening to this record prompted me to try and trace back my first exposure to Irish folktress Lisa Hannigan. It wasn’t too hard to figure out: 2006, Abbey Road studios, duet with Damien Rice on his superb 9 Crimes. (Just to clarify, I wasn’t in the Abbey Road studios, as that sentence might suggest; I was deep in the privacy of my own sofa watching it while munching through some cereals, presumably). It was disturbingly intense, exposed, and naked even; the kind of performance Adele’s been trying to pull off for the whole of her career. Looking back at it, it’s even more impressive to see how greatly respected a name Lisa Hannigan has made for herself, after parting ways with her musical partner of six years shortly after that performance. She’s since released her debut Sea Sew in 2009, which was even nominated for the Mercury Prize (I  can almost hear the words ‘folk token’ echoing through the English valleys now… please, people, she’s so much more than that). And now, she’s releasing its follow-up, Passenger.

It opens with Home, a song that’s almost Suburbs-era Arcade Fire-y in beauty and grandeur, and is all about her longing for, well, home. It’s clear from the start (it should’ve been clear for almost a decade now, but anyways) that we’re in the presence of a true Voice, one that grabs and twists your guts til they leak, one that makes you want to go out and found empires in their name. Lisa’s is intense, clearer than mountain air, and even reminds you of Martha Wainwright (speaking of gut-twisting voices…) at times. And where the lyrics fall short in this track, her voice, along with the shimmery piano-violin intercourse, more than happily supply.

Next up is A Sail, and it’s a completely different game altogether. This track is gloomier, bass-driven, more Laura Marling than you’d expect from her. A picked violin tip-toes its way in, and her voice still dominates it all, including her own banjo. As she mutters the words ‘And if you tell a lie, no one will notice’ it feels like she’s pointing her finger right at you.

Track n 3 is arguably the high point of the record, a song with definite single potential. Knots is potty and playful, and as the whole violin-piano-ukulele mash stomps on our chests, Lisa relates drunken memories so vividly and excitedly you’d think her mental. And speaking of playfulness, What I’ll Do takes it to the extremes: have you ever had a conversation about your ex-partners while joggling some oranges and wearing a fake red nose? Course you haven’t, because you’re not Lisa Hannigan, losers. That’s precisely what she does, in song format; she fools around with loss so easily that it’s impossible to even catch yourself whistling to something like “What I’ll do without you around, my words won’t pun, my pennies won’t pound, and my frisbee flies to the ground…”; heartbreaking, right?

Another amazing turn follows for Oh Sleep, which is, literally, a call to Morpheus. “Come for me, like a leaf from the tree”, says on top of a gentle arpeggio, quite at odds with the layers of orchestration that furnish most of the record. It’s refreshingly bare, and it features the only male vocals of the record. As we get into more intimate territory, Paper House follows in similar fashion, with a story of bonding and group-life – “we were all that we had”, she sings in the midst of a fairy-tale-like atmosphere; and it’s not far-fetched to hear echoes of James Joyce in a line like “the edge of Dublin, the edge of me and you”.

And this is where things get maybe a bit too comfortable for a bit, and the quality level suffers: Little Bird is your typical kitchen-sink romance song – “Your heart sings like a kettle, and your words they boil away like steam”, Lisa croons on top of a harmonic arpeggio like many before. It’s warm, and comforting, but not quite up there with its predecessors. Same can be said of title track Passenger: tale of a road trip through America, but much less of a musical journey, with the unvaried arpeggio taking us tiresomely to the end. Safe Travel (Don’t Die) picks us back up a notch; the narrator here could well be Peter Pan’s mommy, if indeed he had any. It’s a warning against some absurdities that could only take place in this dream-like, innocent universe Hannigan has conjured up in this record. “Don’t swallow bleach, out on Sandymount beach, I’m not sure I’d reach you in time my boy” – this on top of layers of madcap violins talking beautiful nonsense into our ears.

To wrap up is Nowhere to Go, a sparser, more drum-based affair than the others, but, much like the opener, it reminds you how great it is to have a place to belong to – “You’ll never have nowhere to go”, she whispers to her recipient (a bird, in this case, which could well be read as anyone who’s simply tired of flying about from branch to branch). So Passenger is not only an accomplished, passionate and beautifully crafted record, but it even features an internal circular structure (any more Joyce comparisons anyone?) that’s quite hard to pull off. Hats off to the buskerette, then, for once again taking folk to much more fun, adventurous, and eclectic places than it’s used to.

 

Author: Chiara Amoretti