From the very first listen to I Was Born Swimming I felt like I had owned, and lived with, this record for years. It has both depth and breadth and is neither too cluttered nor too sparse. It‘s like a hermetically sealed environment that, if you were to listen to it in a sensory deprivation tank, you would run the risk of falling through space and time. I Was Born Swimming is the first full-length album release from Squirrel Flower (AKA Ella O’Connor Williams) following EPs Early Winter Songs from Middle America in 2015 and Contact Sports from 2016 and the title is a literal reference to O’Connor having been born still held in the sac membrane of amniotic fluid but it also seems like a poetic reference to being in the world and yet still being apart from it.
These twelve songs form a journey of sorts but start with a literal trip on ‘I-80’ (the east-west transcontinental freeway in the USA) a slow burn song that moves from a lullaby to a guitar-fuzz storm before drifting off in a swirling dreamlike end. And in this one song we are treated to something Squirrel Flower does so well: blend an assortment of musical elements together, often in one song, without losing cohesion. Tracks like ‘I-80’, ‘Eight Hours’, ‘Headlights’, ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ and ‘Rush’ are made up of tranquil moments that contain pyroclastic bursts of energy whereas tracks like ‘Home’ and ‘Belly of the City’ are unadorned and capture their mood in amber; ‘Home’ contains an exquisite harmony and ‘Belly of the City’ adds a slight keyboard drone that swirls around under the marshmallow and iron contradiction of Ella’s voice. And peppered throughout there are gravity defying songs like ‘Eight Hours’ and ‘Rush’ set against rambunctious tunes like ‘Honey, Oh Honey!’ and ‘Slapback’. And closing the album is the title track where the reverb of other tracks is stripped away to leaving the vocals on ‘I Was Born Swimming’ to act like it’s the voice in your own head. Ending an album with the singer’s origin story is in keeping with the lyrical quality of all the tracks which don’t always approach their subject matter head on but are delightfully oblique and filled with allusion.
I Was Born Swimming has the confidence to move between barely-there songs with pauses so big you could drive a truck through them and bold fuzzed-up guitar and snare-heavy drums and it feels like it was recorded in the musical equivalent of the golden hour* beloved of film makers. But the confidence that shines throughout is from a voice that “At the low end…is a tremble; a slight abrasion that sits as a fragile counterpoint to the sovereignty of the high notes which come as if from nowhere” as I described it in my review of her recent live show at The Islington in London. This album is a jewel and I know I’ll keep coming back to it so I can sink beneath the surface of its beauty.
*Golden hour (a.k.a. ‘magic hour’) is the time period shortly after sunrise or before sunset, during which the daylight is softer and redder than when the sun is higher in the sky. [Source: Filmmaking Lifestyle]
Review by Paul F Cook