A second LP from the Irish singer which feels unforced, spontaneous and timeless.
David Sheppard 2011-10-11
County Meath’s Lisa Hannigan once harboured theatrical ambitions but first came to public attention not as a thespian but as the counterpoint voice (and occasional lead) in Damien Rice’s band. Quitting that successful, but for a fledgling songwriter, increasingly frustrating franchise in 2007, Hannigan’s hastily recorded solo debut of 2008, See Sew, gained her a Mercury Music Prize nomination and platinum sales. With the release of Passenger, Hannigan, now 30, seems to be drawing a line under all that, or at least signalling the end of a lengthy apprenticeship and the arrival of a mature singer-songwriter possessed of an idiosyncratic yet thoroughly accessible gift.
Produced (in Wales, curiously) by US troubadour and sometime Solomon Burke and Loudon Wainwright knob-twiddler Joe Henry, Passenger proffers 10 by turns vigorous and softly spun essays on ‘journeys’, both literal and metaphorical, couched in often lavish but oddly askew chamber arrangements that can strum up a storm or weave delicate filigrees while always circumventing Celtic or generic folk-rock cliché. At its core lies Hannigan’s voice, a thing of velvety, husky seduction, able to invoke innocence and world-weariness with equal alacrity (sometimes both simultaneously), oscillating deliriously between kittenish, Beth Gibbons-like mewl, soaring, Emmylou Harris descant and introverted Joni Mitchell-ism, while always retaining her own, slightly puckish identity.
The lime in the coconut is Hannigan’s predilection for a dark lyrical apercu. Thus, the superficially sunny Southern stomper Knots is riddled with allusions to choking, spluttering and chalk lines drawn around murder victims, while the pounding, euphorically piano-driven Home is beautifully undermined by the ambiguity of its chorus lyric: "Hold on, there’s nothing to pack / We know we’re not coming back". Only the genteel waltz O Sleep, a duet with Ray LaMontagne, seems over-enamoured with its own cuteness.
That caveat aside, for all its deft arrangements and catchy chorus hook lines, Passenger feels unforced, spontaneous and timeless; indeed, such is its unaffected delivery that it might have been recorded 30 years ago or last month. Like all good actresses, Hannigan is not just telling stories here, she’s mapping the absurd, mischievous, troubling but always potentially transcendent landscape of human emotion in which we are all journeying.