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Music

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
Lisa Hannigan, <em>At Swim </em>

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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