Album Review: Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

By on Wednesday, 17th August 2016 at 12:00 pm

Lisa Hannigan At Swim coverIt’s telling, I think, that the cover of Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan’s third album ‘At Swim’ is the first to display a photo of the artist herself. The album art for her 2008 debut ‘Sea Sew’ exhibited a homespun collection of hand-sewn buttons, while her 2011 sophomore album ‘Passenger’ featured handmade artwork representing the twinkling lights of the cities in which it was written. The music on those albums was as quaint and quirky as the visual art suggested, experimentally folky and charming in its way, but at times a bit tentative, even apologetic for its own presence.

‘At Swim’ is is immediately more confident and self-assured than its two predecessors, its songs simpler in structure and lyrically more concise. The chorus to first single ‘Prayer for the Dying’ consists of four simple words, “your heart . . . my heart”, but the clear tone and mild dissonance of its backing harmonies linger longingly in the mind. Similarly, it’s Hannigan’s vocal delivery rather than the words themselves that makes the refrain of gently rocking piano ballad ‘Ora’ so heartbreakingly memorable, as she pleads “I’m going home . . . won’t you come with me?”


This lyrical streamlining has naturally allowed more focus and stylistic expansion on the musical side of things. Produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, ’At Swim’ takes on a distinctly darker, more dramatic tone than either of Lisa Hannigan’s first two albums. From the sparse acoustic flavour of album opener ‘Fall’ and the beautifully unadorned vocal harmonies of ‘Anahorish’, to the classical piano accompaniment of ‘We, the Drowned’ and the full, sweeping orchestral arrangement of the aforementioned ‘Prayer for the Dying’, Dessner’s touch is definitively felt but never overpowering to the exquisite fragility of Hannigan’s songwriting.

Hannigan’s signature breathy vocals are as soft and delicate as ever on ‘At Swim’, but her execution is notably sharper and cleaner. There are gorgeous melismatic moments in nearly every song, and Hannigan completes the vocal gymnastics with impressive grace and fluidity. She often takes her vocal melodies in surprising directions, but rather than aimless wandering, these diversions feel more like scenic detours through carefully constructed harmonic landscapes. The melodies themselves and the vocal harmonies behind them are so entrancing that I found myself singing along on first listen, despite the fact that I didn’t yet know the words.

‘At Swim’ is a mature and thoughfully developed album that feels like the ultimate alignment of Lisa Hannigan’s creative talent and emotional expressivity. Written during a period of personal tumult, its themes center around sadness and self-doubt. But without question, this is an album Hannigan has always been capable of making. It was only a matter of time before she herself realised it. Now it seems that her shining moment has well and truly come.


Lisa Hannigan’s third album ‘At Swim’ is due out on this Friday, the 19th of August, on PIAS (UK) and ATO Records (North America). Hannigan will follow the release with a run of UK live shows this October. In the interim, you can find TGTF’s full previous coverage of Lisa Hannigan right back here.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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