Review Summary: Rage, rage against the dying of the light.Sea Sew
– Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan’s 2008 debut record – has quite the backstory. Famously: after spending seven years in fellow Irishman Damien Rice’s band, Hannigan was sacked by the notoriously prickly indie artist just moments before they were due to go onstage for a gig in Germany. She subsequently retaliated by bunkering down in a freezing barn in the Irish countryside for two weeks, feverishly writing, composing, and rehearsing the songs that would eventually become the basis of her debut LP. Upon its release, Sea Sew
was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm afforded only to the best of modern music’s upcoming starlets; Choice Music Prize and Meteor Music Award nominations for “Irish Album of the Year” soon followed, and Hannigan also enjoyed a successful promotional tour – the cries of “Lisa who
"!” from the crowd at one of the shows she was asked to open notwithstanding. Add to that the fact that the record had even managed to create a new genre for itself – the reasonably descriptive moniker of “plinky plonk rock” – and all the signs were that Hannigan would become one of Irish music’s most compelling exports for many years to come.
Or at least she might have been if her sophomore record hadn’t abandoned just about everything that made her special in the first place. Passenger
’s stylings – which are slick, polished, and about as far removed as possible from the wheezy, homegrown warmth and broken-down sounds of its predecessor – simply make it hard to bother with Hannigan any longer. For an artist who earned all her plaudits by opening up new methods of adding character and dimension into her songwriting, the record comes off as impersonal, removed, and emotionally distant. While Sea Sew
sounded like it was put together with musical instruments held in one piece by nothing more than mere spit, prayers, and two sheets of rusted tin foil, Passenger
has all the emotional depth of a modern day printing press. Even the album art itself is telling: whereas Sea Sew
’s cover featured a gorgeous knitting pattern - which Hannigan made herself - that imbibed it with a comely home-worn feel, on Passenger
, the artist sounds as far away as the constellations she has chosen to adorn the front of her new album with.
Yet, her attempts at selling the whole affair, though artificial, still manage to get off to a decent start. Album opener “Home” is a lush, full-sounding song with see-sawing strings and the kind of introductory piano riff that one would expect from Coldplay or Keane. Elsewhere, the rustling murmurs of “A Sail” are placed lovingly atop a pair of stately drumbeats, and third track “Knots” isn’t bad either. But from here, everything devolves into the same formulaic mess. “O Sleep” sounds depressingly familiar, and on “Safe Travels (Don’t Die)” Hannigan sounds like she’s channeling the spirit of The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee – but in the worst way possible. To be honest, the songs themselves aren’t that bad, yet they’re definitely falling short of some elusive standard. When examined up close, Passenger
reveals itself to want to distribute largesse in the same manner that its predecessor did, but few among its eleven numbers actually have the sincerity or the innate humility to go the distance, which is itself a good indicator of the hyperbaric conditions Hannigan was probably under whilst making this record. There is no doubt that she sincerely wants to please us as much as she did last time around, but ultimately, it’s her zeal to impress that causes Passenger
to fall flat on its face.
To be fair, Hannigan’s reckless abandonment of her trademark rusticism may owe something to her success with Sea Sew
. After all, it’s often tempting to tap into the luxuries granted by a successful debut record: new and different recording studios, crisp-sounding production, and access to notable guest artists just to name a few. Yet the fact is that it’s Hannigan herself who is the most remote element of all on Passenger
. Her vocals rarely seem to interface with the songs that she has written, and often end up occupying a vast and alienating space that robs the artist of her trademark intimacy. Another failing of the album is its inability to capture the raw beauty of Hannigan's voice in a live setting. When Hannigan sings before an audience she frequently casts her face to the ceiling and, with half-closed eyes, opens her throat and lets out a rasp of delicate strength and stirring beauty, its timbre only slightly accented by the artist’s leprechaun heritage. Only a mere imitation of this luminous beauty is present here; Sea Sew
had this problem as well – so no additional marks off – but it’s still a huge shame that no mixing engineer alive has yet managed to figure out how to capture Hannigan’s voice when it is out in full force.
Three years ago, we bought into Lisa Hannigan because she sounded unique and because she managed to connect us with an experience long since made inaccessible by the sheen of modern studio production. We believed in her then because she could hold our attention in that affably humanistic sway of hers and then make us all watch as she somehow made us feel naked and vulnerable again. But her charm has finally receded from her interactions with us. The full significance of those old sounds of hers, so effortlessly unleashed on Sea Sew
, probably never really infiltrated us until now, but Passenger
’s failure to approach its predecessor’s level of emotional engagement will forever serve to remind us that its creator now sounds just like everybody else. And that, sadly, will be its greatest achievement.