Quieter, moodier, and more spacious than Passenger’s music of migration, At Swim marks a sea change for Hannigan. A decisive move away from her folk based roots into less easily-definable territory, At Swim is an album that shifts its sounds from song-to-song. Her more traditional songcraft, and with it some of her knack for narrative, fades from the foreground here, resulting in a work that is more abstract, more downbeat and more unpredictable.
That’s not to say that it is indulgent. At their longest, At Swim’s songs barely break 4:30, and the album as a whole is under 40 minutes. Like the music itself, the structure of the album is another exercise in admirable restraint from Hannigan, especially given the five year wait. Indeed, it has much in common with some of 2016’s more big-name long-delayed, grey cover albums (Radiohead, Drake, Frank Ocean). As in those works, Hannigan’s songs have a delicacy and coolness to them. They are defined more by the subtle inflections within songs, the surprising shifts, the undercurrents, the moods, the spaces between the music. It’s an album that can prove hard to latch on to, yet is strangely compelling for it.
The voice, drifting between a soft-spoken, endlessly suggestive whisper, and more choral harmonics, remains one of the great attractions of Hannigan’s music. It was the source of so much of the vitality that sparked her previous work, seeming to sustain songs single-handedly. Here, even as the music takes a turn for the spare, you get a sense that Hannigan seeks to evoke as much with the atmospherics of her soundscapes as she does with her voice. You sense that Hannigan took her more conventional form as far as it could go with the thrilling Passengers; here, by slowing things down and stripping them back, Hannigan neatly dodges stagnation through her re-invention. Although none of the tracks have the immediacy or impact of a song like ‘Home’, in some – like the lush, funereal Prayer for the Dying – you see Hannigan expand her sonic range, coming away with the sense that the artist of At Swim is one with more feathers to her cap than that of five years previous.
At Swim is, perhaps more than anything, an intriguing album. It has an emptiness to it; it hums with a mysterious, brooding tension and unknowability that the more up-front Passenger lacked. It is an album that, in the strange sea sounds that swim amongst the guitars and the piano, genuinely beguiles. To be thrilled by an album can be a truly invigorating experience; but to be intrigued, as with At Swim, may just be more rewarding.