THE GRADE A-
BOTTOM LINE Finding power in quiet, beautiful songs
What is most striking about Lisa Hannigan is her control.
It’s an unexpected skill considering how the Irish singer first gained attention as part of the band that brought Damien Rice’s raw, unpredictable emotional folk to life. And, for fans of a certain age, there are times when Hannigan’s lower range sounds just like a young Sinead O’Connor, which sets up a wait for the Sinead-ish banshee shrieks that never come.
Instead of wild emotion, Hannigan offers gorgeous, well-executed control. And on her third album “At Swim” (ATO), Hannigan shows time and time again how beautiful that control can be, even in the darkest of circumstances.
On the lovely ballad “Prayer for the Dying,” her restraint — and the spare, classic country arrangement accented with clear, pretty harmonies — calls to mind the great k.d. lang, a master of cool composure and constant, yet checked, craving.
Hannigan doesn’t use the same vocal approach for all 11 of the songs of “At Swim,” but she never allows her emotions to fly out of control.
On “Lo,” she combines a lighthearted Irish folk song with the coiled rock tension of the “Synchronicity”-era Police. Producer Aaron Dessner, best known as The National’s guitarist, manages to offer these songs enough room to roam and allowing Hannigan’s ethereal voice to shine, while still giving them a solid structure.
That framework serves Hannigan’s melancholy songs best, especially the stunning piano ballad “Funeral Suit.” The insistent piano of “We, the Drowned” propels what could have been a mournful dirge forward, while using stacks of Hannigan’s vocals to poignant effect, an idea they use for even more powerful results on the a cappella “Anahorish.”
It’s far more difficult to pack the same emotional punch using lyrical and musical subtleties. But Hannigan doesn’t shy away from the challenge, turning “At Swim” into one of the most wrenching, well-crafted albums of the year.