Album Review: Squirrel Flower - I Was Born Swimming
Even though the internet is not nearly as fun of a place as it used to be, maybe, roughly a decade ago or so—maybe a little more—there are still a handful of places one can go if one is looking to….acquire…newly released music.
There are varying degrees to being what I typically call a ‘bad fan.’ But maybe, if you’re like me, and you download a lot music that you haven’t paid for, you can convince yourself that you’re still an ‘okay fan’ because you did the simple act of listening to an artist’s album—in turn, technically supporting them.
There are the albums that I download out of either need, or curiosity. Some of those will then turn into things that I sit down with to write a review of; some of them are files that are stored on my computer, and they will stay there, practically untouched, until I come to the realization I’m never actually going to listen to the album in question.
Then there are the things that I actually like, and want to support, and maybe even before I’ve even started writing a review, have fallen in love with an album enough to have ordered it online, already eagerly anticipating its arrival and frantically checking its tracking information to see when I can expect it.
I Was Born Swimming, the debut full-length from Ella O’Conner Williams’ project Squirrel Flower, is one of those albums.
Inexplicably drawn to both the project’s name, as well as the startling cover art, featuring a close up of O’Conner Williams, more or less mid-swoon, I hadn’t even made it all the way through watching the video to the album’s second track, “Red Shoulder,” before I had ordered the limited edition colored variant of I Was Born Swimming on vinyl, and within another 24 hours, had also tracked down a (somewhat difficult to find) copy of O’Conner Williams’ EP from 2018, Contact Sports.
I tried to be lyrical, but lyrics failed me—so I gave up poetry and ran west on I-80…
In music writing, or with any kind of critical analysis of a form of entertainment, it’s almost too easy to fall back into comparing one thing to something else that people might already know if you may see even the slightest similarities between the two; it’s a real challenge to look at something critically, stepping back from even the ‘recommended if you like…’ kind of suggestion-based viewpoint, then work to describe it as being truly unique, or in a wholly original way.
In ordering a copy of Contact Sports from the Rough Trade web store, it more or less said ‘for fans of Mitski’ in the description of both the record as well as Squirrel Flower as a project—and, truthfully, within the first few moments of I Was Born Swimming, as O’Conner Williams pensively strums her guitar and delivers the opening lines with a bated tension in her voice, Mitski (specifically her older material, not Be The Cowboy-era Mitski) was the very first thing I thought of, which is not to downplay O’Conner Williams’ abilities as a performer or a songwriter.
O’Conner Williams wastes absolutely no time getting down to business on I Was Born Swimming with the slow burning, pensive opening track, “I-80,” which features already, right out of the gate, arresting, surprising lyrics: “I tried to be lyrical, but lyrics failed me,” she sings, with a real, palpable sense of longing, melancholy, and maybe angst as well. “So I gave up poetry and ran west on I-80.”
It gets darker from there, as she doubles down on that longing—“I tried to be my best to you. I tried my hardest but I couldn’t keep it down—I had to keep going. The summer slipped in slow as I burned too,” she sings, as the music continues to build up toward what you at first think is going to be some kind of explosion of catharsis, but it, in playing against type, retreats into a quiet, reserved coda.
Recorded mostly live, with little overdubbing, there is a very raw, visceral quality to the album’s production—right down to the amp buzz you can hear in the album’s most quiet moments, sharing traits, at times, with the most recent release from Long Beard, Means to Me, as well as Angie McMahon’s arresting debut, Salt, I Was Born Swimming is yes, what I would call ‘sad white people music,’ and maybe that’s why I was drawn to it, but it is wholly original in the way O’Conner Williams effortlessly and gracefully blurs the lines between tension and release with an etherial, otherworldly, dreamy state.
Nothing really feels right and I fear it might be showing…
Spread across a dozen tracks, I hesitate to say that I Was Born Swimming is front loaded with its most energetic material, simply because an album like this burns so slowly, ‘energy’ isn’t exactly the correct word; however, the pacing is noticeably different, and a little more insular by the time it reaches its second side. Perhaps the songs that hit the hardest, and at times the heaviest, are the ones placed near the top of the record, like the aforementioned attention grabbing single “Red Shoulder,” which, from the second the drums and distended electric guitars come tumbling in, I was a believer in this record; or the surprising and casual violence, juxtaposed against O’Conner Williams’ caterwauling in the strummy, explosive “Slapback.”
I Was Born Swimming isn’t a concept album, but it is a collection of tightly related songs, with themes that continue to appear as the album progresses—the most prevalent being longing, but also a wistfulness, and a restlessness, among other things, that O’Conner Williams manages to weave into what become, at times, brief, evocative, very moody vignettes, with lyrics that, despite her statement about giving up poetry, arrive in a very poetic form, like the way “Red Shoulder” unfolds in a series of breathtaking, vivid images:
You call me over
Red on your shoulder
Soft to the touch
I reach back and fall down.
Take it harder
Feel it more
I Don’t know what is or isn’t anymore…
And the album peaks with its usage of hyper-literate imagery in “Headlights,” which may be I Was Born Swimming’s finest moment—
Driving through a wooded valley west of state.
Mist thrown at the car in shrouded pockets, ghostly and cool.
And within that poetry, “Headlights” also happens to find O’Conner Williams writing her most accessible, and most identifiable lyrics—“Realize I’m not getting older, but I’m not getting younger,” she sings, her voice caressed in a reverb that gives it a gorgeous, dreamy quality. Then, the line that, for me anyway, hit the hardest—“Nothing really feels right, and I fear it might be showing.”
The album’s second half begins with the tender “Home”—sparsely arranged (it’s mostly just the electric guitar strums and O’Conner Williams’ multi-tracked vocals; lyrically, it falls somewhere between a love song, and a lament—“You take me back hone and carry me inside when I’ve fallen asleep on the road,” she sings with a somber, haunting, yet loving quality to her voice. It’s a very slowly simmering way to open up the second side of the record, but I Was Born Swimming finds sone more energy, or enthusiasm, as it moves into the heavy, free wheeling stomp of “Streetlight Blues,” the song that is, more or less, the last burst of any kind of ‘big’ energy before the album concludes.
One of the other themes that slowly reveals itself the more you listen to I Was Born Swimming, and especially if you pour over the lyric sheet inserted in the vinyl, is a subtle sensuality; O’Conner Williams is a smart enough songwriter to not make this kind of need something that’s front and center, or very explicit at all, but an unfulfilled desire is there, swirling around with those other emotions she’s written into the context of the album. It is maybe most plainly stated on “Rush,” where over the hushed rhythm of the band, sings, “I want you so bad The thought alone makes me lose it.” This, however, is juxtaposed against something much starker, as the song ends—“What will you do when the dust settles, the shine fads, the rush chills out?”
I Was Born Swimming concludes with two quiet, inward meditations—the desolate “Belly of The City,” which finds, over strummed guitar only, O’Conner Williams returning to another recurring idea that materializes throughout the record’s unfolding: the idea of ‘home.’ It’s not as much of a central conceit as that is on, say, Long Beard’s Means to Me, which is more or less a song cycle about the notion of returning to where you are from, but finding that everything has changed; here, however, the idea of ‘home’ is presented as the place one longs to return to. “Belly of the city,” she sings. “Hear me breathe on my way home.”
“Belly of The City” also finds O’Conner Williams tapping back into that poetic, evocative use of language to create portraits within these songs, making a line that seems so simple so utterly devastating and captivating: “Midnight workers—I know the darkness of these roads as well as you do.”
The album ends with what is more or less a brief epilogue—the titular track, fleeting, sparse, and all of 90 seconds; on it, O’Conner Williams delicately and intimately strums and acoustic guitar, and leaves the listener, in the end, with a question and a demand: “Can you see me shimmer? So, dip me in the water.”
The release date of O’Conner Williams’ previous effort, the EP Contact Sports, is a little confusing; the copyright date on the vinyl edition is 2016, though on her Bandcamp page, it’s listed as 2018—though, really, the release date doesn’t matter all that much. In comparing the two releases, you can hear both the foundation of her songwriting and lyricism, as well as the growth made and confidence she has found within the time that has elapsed. If Contact Sports could be looked at as a ‘promising’ effort from a relatively new and young performer, I Was Born Swimming is that promise fulfilled.
O’Conner Williams has a voice—both literally and figuratively—beyond her years; she, like many of her peers, is in her early 20s, which is startling given the haunted, robust quality of her singing voice, as well as the maturation found within her lyrics. The statement she makes at the beginning of the record—that lyrics failed her, and that she gave up on poetry—to the listener, anyway, isn’t necessarily true. I Was Born Swimming is a beautiful, at times incredibly dark, rumination on fragmental elements of the human condition, and within the dreamlike moments it creates, is the kind of record full of themes that will linger with you long after the record has ended.