Ella Williams’ 2020 debut album as Squirrel Flower, I Was Born Swimming combined ethereal melodies and alt-rock grit in a very pleasing manner. It was one of the highlights of a year that is generally best forgotten. So, with a bit of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, her new record Planet (i) should be happy, happy, joy, joy all the way. Right?
I Was Born Swimming refers to her unusual entrance to the world; she was born still inside of the translucent caul sac membrane, surrounded by amniotic fluid. That would make a hell of a pick-up line. Planet (i) takes her propensity for head injuries as a key theme, and in the pantheon of pop music, that’s probably unique. She’s also traveled from Massachusetts to Bristol in the UK to make the album. She wasted no time in assimilating herself into the musical culture of the Former Home of Trip-Hop and drafted in Portishead’s Adrian Utley to play guitar on the sessions. His unorthodox techniques add new colors to Planet (i), which take the songs to another level. While I Was Born Swimming had a lo-fi, indie rock feel, Planet (i) is something else again.
The single “Hurt a Fly” is one of a few tracks on Planet (i) that could have almost been on its predecessor. Ali Chant’s brief, stinging, and nearly atonal guitar solo is a joy to behold, and the song hangs on a simple, effortless vocal melody and delivery. It was a strong precursor to the album, and the great thing is that it’s not even the best track. Where I Was Born Swimming had its roots in indie/alt-rock, Planet (i) has a more pastoral feel. “Iowa 146” has a very Pink Moon era, Nick Drake feel, and is a very lovely thing indeed. On this tune, her voice sounds fragile and incredibly real. Maybe it’s because quarantine forced her into writing minimalist music, but her second album has a less strident feel than her debut. This approach certainly seems to suit her.
There are some gorgeous ensemble performances on Planet (i). Whether she went to Bristol to get that “Portishead” sound, or if it just happened organically, is a question for another day, but the change of cohort and location has made for a great sounding piece of work. Adrian Utley adds unique textures to the material, moving effortlessly from Moogs to treated guitars. However, no one ever gets in the way of Williams’ vocal performances, which is fortunate as she’s really found her voice. Confident and assured but never overly-strident or jarring.
Like most great records, Planet (i) takes a few plays to register with the listener. You probably won’t fall in love with “Flames and Flat Tires” or “Starshine” straight away, but eventually, you will. A considerable part of that allure is in the backing vocals. On I Was Born Swimming, Williams’ voice was pretty much unadorned, but here she’s augmented by some gorgeous backup vocal arrangements. These additional voices help to lift the material while showcasing her performances. Those deft touches make a world of difference.
The main criticism of Planet (i) is that it seems top-heavy. The last four tracks seem relentlessly downbeat, and the album is in danger of dwindling to nothing with only the clashing, fuzzed-out guitars on “Night” to break the mood. A little bit of judicious sequencing would have given the album a lift in the second half, but as long as you’re not playing Planet (i) on vinyl, you can make your own playlist.
The early signs are excellent for Squirrel Flower. So far, she hasn’t put a foot wrong, and album two is just as strong as album one but in a different way. Miss her at your peril.