Every now and then, it’s really rather lovely to have your preconceptions totally eviscerated. When Squirrel Flower’s album I Was Born Swimming digitally dropped on my doormat, I have to confess, dear reader, that I rolled my eyes. Let’s start with the name. Even for a Belle and Sebastian fan, Squirrel Flower is a wee bit twee, and a glance at the pale and interesting artist on the front cover hammered home the fact that this album probably wouldn’t sound like Morbid Angel. That bit was the only part I got right. I Was Born Swimming manages to be both fragile and robust and is stuffed full of good things. But it doesn’t sound like Morbid Angel.
Squirrel Flower is Ella O’Connor Williams, and the reason that this record is called I Was Born Swimming is that she was born still inside of a translucent caul sac membrane, surrounded by amniotic fluid. I’m not sure if that’s an auspicious start to life or a one-way ticket to Therapyville, but there you have it. Does she still feel cut off from the world, forever shielded by a thin but impenetrable, matriarchal presence? I have no idea. Is it an interesting concept to hang an album on? Yeah. And it makes more sense than Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, that’s for sure.
Enough pop-psychology – what does it sound like? It sounds great. Ms. Flower has a voice that is ethereal but gently powerful. It’s not the anemic whisper that some of her contemporaries hide behind; neither is it Janis Joplin. It’s balanced nicely in the middle. Producer Gabe Wax has placed that voice perfectly in the center of some discreet and minimal instrumentation, which shows it off to its best advantage. Whoever is playing the guitar on this record deserves another donut at breaktime, as on tracks like “Red Shoulder”, it shifts from shimmering, Durutti Column-inspired arpeggios to aggressive, fuzzed-out chords, with a cool little melody line snaking between everything around it.
By now, you know this isn’t going to be the limp angst-fest you were expecting/dreading. If you need any more proof, it’s in “Slapback”. “Good thing, my body is for my eyes only,” she sings, “I own it and I will attack”, and later “If you slap me, I’ll slap you right back.” Then you look at the album cover again. She’s not the fey waif you first saw – there’s a quiet strength behind those eyes.
There’s barely a moment on the record that is less than lovely. A high point is “Eight Hours”, which somehow manages to combine Albatross era Fleetwood Mac with Rumours era Fleetwood Mac, with Jeff Buckley. How could anyone turn that down? If you think there’s an old head on those young shoulders, you could be right. There’s a wistful, nostalgic feel to some of the lyrics, with just the right amount of angst. “I-80”, “Headlights”, and “Home” share a theme of travel — whether this is actual or metaphorical miles traveled is unclear – I’m not sure if she’s familiar with Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece Hejira, but it shares that album’s central theme of running to or from something. And like Hejira, I Was Born Swimming has just the right amount of soul-searching introspection – five percent more and your inner voice would be screaming “just deal with it!” loudly enough for other people to hear it.
It’s not all good news, however. “Honey, Oh Honey!” is a corny tribute to her favorite foodstuff and should probably exist only as the song she plays live as her first encore, before a couple of her most popular tunes. You may be able to listen to “Honey, oh, honey, So sticky and runny, Don’t take my honey away” and smile wryly. I couldn’t. It’s pretty short.
I approached I Was Born Swimming with entirely the wrong mindset, and now I hang my head in shame. I Was Born Swimming is a great record from someone who has a thousand miles of potential. Let’s not forget, this is her first record, and it’s self-assured, confident, and just vulnerable enough to give it an edge. Beautifully sung. Beautifully played. And it doesn’t sound like Morbid Angel.