Album Review: Squirrel Flower - Planet (i)
I suppose, if you are looking to call them something, you could call them “moments.”
They can, of course, be the entire song—the kind of song, as a whole, that knocks the wind out of you. The kind of song that, if you were to hear it for the first time on the radio, you would sit in your car until it’s over, completely transfixed and in awe of what you were listening to.
They can, of course, also be just a specific part of a song—the places where all of the elements tumble together in just the right way and create something magic1, or surprising. These moments don’t have to knock the wind out of you, or stop you in your tracks, but they can sometimes do something to you.
If anything, they make an imprint.
I recently sent a text to a friend asking if she had listened to Planet (i), the second full-length album from Ella Williams’ project Squirrel Flower. She told me she hadn’t, and for no good reason at all, really ever gotten into Williams’ debut LP, I Was Born Swimming.
It has been a minute since I went back and revisited I Was Born Swimming, and thinking about it, I had the stark realization the album was released in February of 2020.
That was only last year. That was roughly 16 months ago.
You can look at that span of time and say it “wasn’t that long ago,” because objectively, it isn’t. And in looking at that span of time, you, if you are like me, can take into account what the last 16 or 17 months have been like, both for the world at large, as well as personally.
February of 2020 seems like an actual lifetime ago—a lifetime that I feel less and less of a clearer connection to with every day that passes. But in this other lifetime, on a winter evening, I sat with my laptop open on the coffee table, watching the video for the Squirrel Flower song “Red Shoulder,” and the clip wasn’t even halfway over before I had opened another tab and was ordering a copy of the record.
It was because I had one of those moments. It didn’t stop me in my tracks, or knock the wind out of me, but there was something surprising that happened, and the only way I can describe it now, in retrospect, is that there is a place in the song where all of the elements converge, and it feels like a trap door opens underneath you, and you spend the rest of the song slowly plummeting into its ramshackle beauty and grace.
“Red Shoulder,” a sparse three minutes and change, opens with an electric guitar strum that deeply resonates before Williams’ borderline etherial vocals come in. Lyrically, it’s sparse, and ambiguous, and as she sings the final line of the song’s opening verse, “I reach back and fall down,” the rest of the instrumentation comes in—clattering cymbals, the thud of the snare drum, and a low, rumbling bass line, and the way these elements slide in so flawlessly, right on cue—it creates something magic, and surprising.
A fleeting moment that leaves a lasting imprint.
A few months ago, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote a brief piece about the singer and songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle for The New York Times, specifically about her work on a collaborative effort with the very heavy metal band Thou, and the song “The Valley.”
In the introduction, Abdurraqib recalls playing one of Rundle’s early albums, Some Heavy Ocean, for a friend, who halfway through, turned to him and said, “I like that everything she sings sounds like a warning or a threat.”
I think about this quote a lot—specifically with how accurately it describes the visceral, haunted feeling in the way Rundle sings, but I also think about it in terms of how it may describe other artists.
The first line, of the first song, on Planet (i) is, “I’ll go running—let my hair down.”
Later in the song, which aptly titled “I’ll Go Running,” Ella Williams sings, “I’m a space rock burning fast…I’m an oil tank burning slow.”
And there is something about these words.
It’s in the way she sings them—there is a deliberate nature to how slowly they come out of her, and how her voice barely rises above what I would call a mumble.
There’s something in that kind of intense, almost gritted restraint that I can’t help but feel like it sounds like a threat, or a warning.
Or, the further the song goes, that there will be danger.
There is a noticeable contrast between how Williams appears on the cover of I Was Born Swimming, and how she appears 16 months later, on Planet (i). At the beginning of 2020, Williams appeared mid-swoon, her arm extended up, swaying with her long, curly red hair swooping in every direction along with her; the color behind her a cool shade of blue.
The entire photograph on the cover of Planet (i) is drenched in blazing reds and oranges. With a body of water behind her, Williams no longer looks dreamy or even serene—she doesn’t even look at all now. Her gaze is pointed at the rocks she is stepping across2, her hair hanging down and obscuring her face.
The girl, mid-swoon, from less than two years ago is both the same, but also not the same girl traversing enormous rocks wearing what appears to be a baggy leather jumpsuit. But I am, of course, both the same and not the same person I was less than two years ago who was imprinted by a specific moment within a song.
There are similar elements between both I Was Born Swimming and Planet (i), and in working closely with multi-instrumentalist and producer Ali Chant, this is a much darker, daring, and at times, more bombastic sounding album that, from beginning to end, it finds Williams continuing to challenge herself in how, and where, in her songwriting she can create both startling, and haunting, juxtapositions.
The result is a collection of songs, both spectral and gentle, caterwauling and confrontational—and either way, it leaves an imprint.
There’s a short interview with Williams that I found and looked over as a bit of background research on the process of making Planet (i) before I both sat down with the record in earnest3, and began writing this piece, and in it, the writer refers to the album as a “mirror image” to I Was Born Swimming.
I have to disagree. And if anything, Planet (i) is a reflection in a funhouse mirror, distorting and warping the sound Williams built on both her sparse, hard to find EP Contact Sports, as well as what she was working toward with I Was Born Swimming.
Planet (i) is, in short, an unrelenting exercise in contrasts—specifically in the album’s drastically shifting instrumentation which can go from quiet to deafeningly loud between songs, and in one case, within the same song. There are also the contrasts in lyrical elements that perhaps standout even more than her dramatic arrangements—vivid images like the “space rock burning fast,” and the “oil tank burning slow,” as well as lyrical portraits of heavy, unexpected rains in Texas, or the desolation of the midwest—all the more of a sharp juxtaposition knowing the album was recorded in the United Kingdom, adding a feeling of palpable longing that hangs over each song.
There are, of course, the album’s stark visuals, and dystopian title, which is also a real contrast against the gentle, brushed tone that comes from a number of the songs found within.
“I’ll be newer than before,” Williams sings near the end of “I’ll Go Running,” and it sounds less like a threat, or warning, and more of a definitive statement. “I’ll be something that you’ve never seen before,” she continues, indicating the ever shifting nature of both her, as an individual, but also of the album to come.
The thing about the song “I’ll Go Running,” aside from the fact that it is an outstanding, tone setting opening track, is that it reaches a certain point—a moment, if you will, where you do actually want to run alongside Williams as the elements suddenly tumble together, and they do so in such a delicate, restrained way. I mean, the amount of reserve and patience Williams and her collaborators use here to control the tension present as “I’ll Go Running” slowly burns and builds is commendable. It reaches a place where it doesn’t so much take off, or explode, but if it’s been simmering since the opening note, the song boils over with about 90 seconds left before it ends, with a the jangle of a tambourine and absolutely haunting background vocals coming in under Williams voice.
With that reserve and tension, there is the faintest of releases, and within that small feeling of letting go, a beautiful, surprisingly urgent moment is created.
There are a handful of larger, more dissonant tracks throughout Planet (i), and only a few places where the album’s quality and pacing falter slightly, but as a whole, and perhaps it is to be expected, the album succeeds or has the most impact in the corners where it is the most hushed, or most pensive.
Arriving still within the album’s first half, “Deluge in The South” is one of the record’s finest songs, punctuated by a lush, folksy instrumentation, evocative, literate lyrics, and a fascinating use of control over the song’s momentum that comes from the way the tempo shifts slightly and stops suddenly early on—and it’s a technique that Williams and her stable of collaborators and players continue to use as the song gently unfolds, often deployed to indicate the introduction of something new, like the beginning of a verse.
Like a bulk of Williams’ lyrics, “Deluge in The South” is heavily cloaked in poetic ambiguity, but the fragments, like, “I tried the best I could to pain the house and forgive you, but nothing seemed to do the trick,” takes a backseat (although it really shouldn’t) to the way she and the band play around with the song’s momentum, as well as just how gorgeous her voice is here.
The album is more or less split in half with the very tender, and reflective “Iowa 146,” which aside from some atmospherics that whoosh around in the background, and minimal additional instrumentation, it is one of the sparsest songs musically, finding Williams alone, singing in a voice that barely rises above a whisper, delicately plucking away at the acoustic guitar. “Iowa 146” is among the songs on the record that are steeped in something both bittersweet and melancholic.
In its reflective nature, there is a sense of longing for something that can never be again—“If I played you guitar, will everything fall away,” she asks in the song’s opening line, then returns to that intimate theme throughout, with the roles then reversing by the song’s end. “Take me back to the house where we lay—orange light fading through the window outside. As you played me guitar, I watched it fall away.”
And it’s from here that, as Planet (i) eases into its second half, that the tone shifts inward, leaving a lot of the volatile material behind. There is still an unnerving feeling that runs throughout, but the sound becomes much more introspective, specifically in the spectral yearnings of the stunning “Desert Wildflower,” and the woozy, gentle conclusion, “Starshine.”
There are a handful of recurring themes on the album, one of which is Williams’ lifelong fear of severe weather—flooding and high, tornadic winds, specifically, and she alludes to these early on in the record, but confronts them head on in “Desert Wildflower,” a song that has perhaps some of the most devastating and honest lyricism and vocal delivery from her. “I’m not scared of the flood,” she exclaims. “I’ll be there with open arms and my feet in the mud.”
“I’m not scared of the storm,” she continues. “I’ll be lying on the roof when the tornado comes.”
“The thunder screams. I’m another piece of debris flying above the town.”
Within Planet (i)’s duality, or continual usages of harsh juxtapositions, Williams contrasts all of the lush, acoustic, folk tinged tracks with songs that are much more visceral in nature; and those songs aren’t all dissonant or totally explosive—“Hurt a Fly,” for example, the album’s first single, is practically jaunty in its unrelenting rhythm and bouncing accompaniment from the stabs of the piano keys that you can hear within the admittedly chaotic arrangement.
Similar in its execution of being a big, infectiously built song, is “Roadkill,” and despite the grotesque title, it’s easy to look past with it with how Williams structures the song. Beginning with her voice accompanied only by a strummed electric guitar—a real trademark of a Squirrel Flower song, if you think about it—much like “Red Shoulder,” there is a moment when the rest of the instruments hit their mark, arriving right on time behind her and creating something ferocious and snarling.
Not everything on Planet (i) is all tension, or all release—there are places where Williams is able to find the balance, as best as she is able, between the two of those tonalities, like “Night,” arriving near the album’s conclusion, and “To Be Forgotten,” which, like “Deluge in The South,” is one of the best songs included among the set.
“Night,” like the way the album begins with “I’ll Go Running,” seems less like a threat at first, but still can sound like a warning—though by the time Williams begins repeating the phrase, “I won’t lie and say I’ve got another,” it sounds like a warning coming from a ghostlier world beyond our own.
“Night” is also among the songs where, not only is there a contrast from how it begins, to the heights it ascends to by the end, but it finds Williams exploring some of the darker thematic elements present throughout Planet (i.)
It’s almost too easy to read too literally into the line, “I don’t wanna breathe that air in my lungs,” and to stop yourself from looking at that as a reflection of life during the time of a pandemic, just look at the harrowing line before it—“Haven’t seen the sun in months.”
The dystopian, apocalyptic imagery of the record—from the album art, to the title, to specific lines throughout, doesn’t make it an inaccessible record, but it does give Planet (i) a surprising edge that I Was Born Swimming certainly did not have. And even though Williams has admitted that imagery is inspired by more of the slow, painful decline of the world around us rather than a large, awful single event, there is still a very cinematic and speculative feeling to some of her portraits—“Bombs and smoke hugging the ocean,” she sings on “Night,” followed later by “There’s oil in the streets downtown.”
There is then, of course, the song called “Flames and Flat Tires,” which only adds to the weird, dangerous, desolate places Williams conjures up as a contrast to the album’s more gentle, personal songs.
In the notes I had taken, both while sitting with Planet (i) for the first time and listening from beginning to end, but also things I had feverishly typed into my phone while revisiting parts of the album on my morning walks to work, one of the things I had written was simply: “The explosive nature of ‘Night.’”
And it is one of the album’s most cathartic and atmospheric songs—unexpectedly reaching a cacophonic peak around the halfway point, raining down a torrent of dissonant, squalling guitars and thundering drumming that seems both uncharacteristic of Williams, but also totally fits within the context and delicate balance of the album as a whole.
And this chaotic, dizzying moment only lasts a little while—it finds resolution much sooner than one might anticipate, as the noise slowly drifts away, and Williams, with her haunted, otherworldliness and distended guitar strums is left alone once again as “Night” slowly comes to its conclusion.
In the Flood piece about Planet (i), it mentions that in contrast to how I Was Born Swimming was recorded almost entirely live, with little, if any, overdubs, the soundscape of this record was constructed through experimentation within the production itself. One of the places that is most apparent, or at least becomes clearer with more (and closer) listens, is the beginning of the sweeping, grand “To Be Forgotten.”
There are a lot of songs on Planet (i) that start with just Williams singing and strumming the guitar before the rest of the instrumentation finds its way into the song as it begins to grow. But in comparing this technique within the opening of “Night,” Williams sounds like she is singing—calling to us, even—from another room, and her guitar is drenched in a cavernous muffle; “To Be Forgotten” finds the guitar quiet and clean in sound, gently accompanying her voice which is gorgeous, yes, and less threatening here than in other places, but it is also not altered or distorted by any kind of effects.
It’s not a startling detail, but it is an intelligent production technique within the rich, warm, sonic tapestry that Williams and Chant have worked closely to create.
I hesitate to say that there is a “triumphant” moment, or song, on an album such as this—Planet (i) isn’t a “sad record” as a whole, though it does have more than its share of sad songs, but the overall commitment to contrasts in tonality prevent it from being pigeon holed in such a way—but a song like “To Be Forgotten” is maybe not triumphant sounding, so much as it is the most musically stirring.
There is a point in “I’ll Go Running,” when all of the instruments slide into place, where you want to go running right alongside Williams—there is something in the rhythm that you can feel within you and it propels you forward; the same thing happens within “To Be Forgotten.” There is a slow, and very controlled build up leading to the place where the song takes off, and the sensation of propulsion surges out of the music, into you as you listen.
Even as borderline anthemic as the song is, which is mostly thanks to the way Williams lets her voice soar during the refrain, but Matt Brown’s precision behind the drum kit, introducing fills before connecting them into a circling rhythm—but even with the “triumph” it almost reaches, the melancholic, wistful nature of Williams’ lyrics is what holds it back. “I tried to remember how the rain felt,” she sings in the refrain—a line, and thematic element she uses in other places on Planet (i), “‘Cause it won’t fall again. The ground will be cracked and drained and the only things growing are the tension lines in your face.”
I know the worst is yet to come
Closing out Planet (i)’s first side is another one of the songs where, with closer listens, the detail spent on the album’s sonic textures and production is very apparent, is “Pass,” where Williams manages to find a place in-between sounding threatening or like she is giving a warning, and when she sounds somber and pensive.
She does, however, allow a sense of dis-ease run through it, through the inclusion of a supplemental vocal track where she dryly whispers along to her own vocals, giving the song an eerie, chilling shadow. The drums, shuffling, rolling, and gentle, and Williams guitar is, again, cavernous in its reverberations—but the real surprise on “Pass” are the pessimistic lyrics.
Based on the conceit of Planet (i), you shouldn’t, for a moment, mistake it for a “hopeful” record, but in a contrast to the rest of the album’s lyrics, “Pass” finds Williams writing from a blunt, practically hopeless place—lyrics that both caught me off guard the first time I really heard them, but also, were very, very relatable.
“Life here’s getting dull,” Williams confesses early in the song. “And I don’t know how to pass my days anymore.”
Then, near the song’s conclusion, “And I know the worst…I know the worst is yet to come.”
The more time I have spent with Planet (i), and tried to unpack it more, I’ve realized two things—the first is that it’s a restless album, and that its beauty, and the compelling nature of it, comes from that restlessness. Even with all of the back and forth between the gentler, folksier side of Squirrel Flower, even with the slowly strummed electric guitars and vocals that sound like a warning, and even with the fury Williams can unleash when the noise continues to grow, the album almost always works as a whole—not a concept album, per se, but a cycle of songs that are tightly knit around central, often returned to ideas and themes. It stumbles at times, yes, and there are certainly standout tracks that can be removed from the album’s insular nature and enjoyed on their own, but it is meant to be digested, uninterrupted, from beginning to end, in order to get the most out of Williams’ journey through her longing, anger, reflections, and the restless feeling we all, deep down, probably know in one way or another.
The second thing I came to understand about Planet (i) is that it can, at times, keep its listeners at an arm’s length. It isn’t “inaccessible,” but it is a difficult listen—but that’s the point. It wouldn’t have half as much of the heft or poignancy it packs if it weren’t a challenging, thoughtful album.
As a lyricist, Williams continues to grow in the way she uses fragments, or ambiguity, blurring fiction and “creative non-fiction,” crafting tales that are personal, or at least semi-autobiographical, though she runs it all through a dream-like gauze, where, in the end, everything blurs into a beautiful, distorted world she’s created. In working with Ali Chant, and a close stable of other musicians, the instrumentation is lush and complimentary to the lyrics, and the production is meticulous without being pristine—again, that’s the point.
Williams said, with his record, she wanted to “wrestle with the earth, or be able to see the beauty and also the terrifying nature of it at the same time.” It’s a record that isn’t about the human condition, but it is about being very human and living during a difficult time, and feeling stuck, or at least pulled, in two different directions—where you have come from, and where you might be going. Planet (i) is a thought provoking record—both violent and tender, it manages to find the spaces where those two intersect, and creates something both and original.
1- This was an aside that I thought was going to be too lengthy or too difficult to shoehorn into the piece, so early on especially, but here I am specifically thinking about the first time I heard the song “Dreamdaddy” by World Leader Pretend. There’s a moment in it where everything comes together in such a beautiful way that, the first time I heard it, and if we’re being honest, every other time I’ve really listened to it in the last 16 years, it’s weakened me in the knees just slightly.
2- This was really just to clarify that I had already written this paragraph and committed to talking about this image when I realized that, in looking at the sleeve again, it looks like she’s superimposed onto the rocks. But whatever. It’s still a really striking photograph to put on your album cover and really sets a tone.
3- So, like, in case anyone reading this, and making it this far to the third footnote, is wondering about my “process,” or whatever, but, like, this year especially, and most of last year too, I guess, it's become pretty important for me to write about something that I have a physical copy of, because the first listen is usually spent actually sitting with it and not doing anything else but listening and taking notes. I really prefer not to hear something for the first time on the computer, through an mp3 or on Spotify, though I understand I am in the minority on this. The point of this footnote though is to say there was a slight delay in actually sitting down with this the way I wanted to because it didn’t arrive on the day of release, but a few days after.