Album Review: Squirrel Flower – Planet (i)

The album Planet (i) is titled for a new world that Ella Williams, who is Squirrel Flower, imagines people settle and destroy after leaving earth and for her internal world of thoughts and feelings.

To create the album Williams and Ali Chant, her producer, brought together musicians in Bristol UK to add impact to her lyrics that use natural disasters to represent the turbulence of close emotional relationships. The result is a significant step forward for Squirrel Flower.

The musicians who joined Williams and Chant are Matt Brown on drums and Portishead’s Adrian Utley on guitars and synthesisers. In addition, there are members of Williams’ family, her father, Jesse Williams, who played on her debut album I Was Born Swimming, plays upright bass, and her brothers Jameson Williams and Nate Williams who play guitar, cello and trumpet. Across the album a variety of instruments are utilised, including mandolin, banjo, slide guitar as well as space guitar and mini moog, to create blend of classic Americana, rock ballads and the hiss and scratches of trip hop era Bristol.

Williams comes from a strong musical lineage on her father’s side and grew up listening to and performing music. Her grandparents were classical musicians based in an artistic cooperative in up state New York and her father spent much of his working life as a touring musician and educator. As a child Williams sang in the Boston Children’s chorus and by her teens she was writing, performing and recording her own songs influenced the local Folk and DIY scenes.

Prior to her debut album Williams had self recorded and released two EPs of her own material. Typically she would sing and play a thumbed, distorted electric guitar, and poetic lyrics that sometimes felt like only fragments of songs.

On Planet (i) the music still is typically based on melancholy, folk melodies but there are occasions  where other elements burst through to add to the intensity of the feelings conjured up by the lyrics. The lyrics clearly convey emotions and feelings through the use of first person narratives and recurring images whilst retaining their poetic qualities.

The first track I’ll Go Running starts with minor chords strummed on an acoustic guitar and a slow steady drum beat. The lyrics are vulnerable and intimate, “I’ll tell you everything Give away every part.” This vulnerability is replaced by an assertiveness as Williams voice rises and declares “I’ll be newer than before I’ll be something you’ve never seen.” This change is emphasised by the addition of layers of electric guitar and faster drum beats. The openness of the lyrics and the varied musical elements create an atmosphere that conveys the strength of the emotional shift.

The album’s strongest song Hurt a Fly utilises story telling lyrics and a varied musical approach. Williams sings soft distorted vocals from the point of view of a gaslighting, narcissistic character who skirts around their responsibility. The lyrics are witty and wry “I would never hurt a fly Unless it wasted my time” and the guitar, piano, drums and a very noticeable shaker combine to create a sinister ballad.

Deluge in the South reminds me of Iron and Wine with its use a folky acoustic guitar sound, verses that wind down to almost a halt and whispered vocals. Flames and Flat Tires uses reverb soaked vocals and slow building guitar and keyboard to create a powerful atmosphere of destruction.

There are recurring references to home as a place of calm and forgiveness such as Deluge in the South, “I tried the best I could To paint the house and forgive you”  and in Iowa 146 “Take me back to the house where we lay.”

As well as direct exploration of feelings there are images from wild weather woven into the lyrics. For example, there are many references to natural disasters which are then compared to internal emotional states. Such as in Big Beast, “The lightening in my minds eye Storm clouds in my mind Thunder inside” and in Roadkill “Air is Smokey so you stay in. Something’s burning you up within.”

Pass is another ominous song, where echoing voice and sparse instruments add to the disconcerting feelings created by the lyrics, “I know the worst is to come.” To Be Forgotten has a slow building drum rhythm, fuzzy guitar and rising vocals that make the desolate lyrics, such as “To be alone, what a feeling, to be forgotten, what a feeling,” feel celebratory and defiant.

In Desert Wildflowers the sparse clear vocals over the occasional lightly brushed acoustic guitar chords reassure us that the worst has been faced and the future is more assured. This is followed by Night which starts off with a similar understated vibe before guitars and drums crash in to create a sense of turbulence.  Although the song returns to the quiet strums of the guitar the unsettled feeling remains, and this is reflected by the repeated lyric “I won’t lie and say I’ve got another.”

On the final track, Starshine, the slow vocals and drawn out words command attention. The minimalist guitar playing includes squeaks of chord changes that intensify the intimate feelings. This calm meditative song ends the album by offering hope for the future “Don’t let it pass. Don’t let it wither.”

On Planet (i) Williams demonstrates her growth as songwriter. In particular the use of the imagery from natural disasters creates powerful vignettes. The songs make good use of her beautiful voice to convey emotions powerfully and the impact of her poetic lyrics are increased by the contributions of Chant, as producer, and the musicians.

John Bradbury

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