By John DiGiovanni, Culture Writer, MPP ‘13
The first thing you’ll notice is this voice. Immediately delicate and surprisingly grave, Lisa Hannigan’s haunting tone rises from a charming hush in conversation, defined as much by its fragility as its Dublin-bred texture, to find its fated depths in the corners of her songs. It is a howling, velvety thing, channeling weathered weariness throughout its native purity. A long-time member of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice’s band before embarking upon her own solo career, Hannigan introduced her tranquilizing persona on her 2008 debut, Sea Sew, a beautifully ethereal and critically acclaimed album widely hailed as one of the best Irish albums of the year.
Hannigan’s recently released sophomore album, Passenger, carries a bit more weight than her first. Where Sea Sew wore little more than an airy, acoustic shroud over its deliberate reliance on Hannigan’s distinctive pipes, Passenger chooses a bolder outfit. Armed with the relaxed assurance of a proven artist, Hannigan’s songwriting has taken on a reverent fortitude reminiscent of Blue-era Joni Mitchell. With Passenger, she has dreamed up a decidedly more complex foundation for her voice, which slides seamlessly across myriad singing styles, finding solace in the calming buoyancy of her multi-talented backing band.
“This album is a bit more confident in itself. You can hear it in the songs,” Hannigan relays to me from the road, where she is promoting her album on a whirlwind international tour. She’s right. From the start, the direction of this album is more urgent than forthcoming. As Hannigan wades through notions of nostalgia and anticipation alike, she sings with both the purpose that she’s proud to have earned and the regret that she wishes she hadn’t. “And Oh, every promise that we broke/Is sewn to our clothes,” Hannigan sings on the album’s opening track, “Home,” a lovely song paced by violin and energized with the heave and chime of percussion and piano.
Hannigan pushes onward with the extraordinarily eloquent “A Sail,” a stunning nod to the silent pain of fractured intimacy. Lurching forward from a dark baseline accompanied by Hannigan’s pained admissions (“Well, I was the loudest/While you stayed quiet”), the singer finishes defiantly, unrepentant in her frustration. “I will roll my heart up,” she wails repeatedly against a backdrop of clanging symbols and layered violins. Hannigan’s mood quickly changes with “Knots,” the first single off of Passenger and undoubtedly the most uplifting song on the album. Brought to life by Hannigan’s undulating ukulele, “Knots” delivers the listener an irresistible bundle of anxiety and amusement.
Hannigan hopes that Passenger can “make you aware of things that you always carry with you in your pocket – what you take with you when you’re on the move.” And it is of this inherent concept, one rooted in the fraying ties of travel as much as the sturdy idea of home, from which these songs stem. From “O Sleep,” a strained lover’s duet with the talented Ray Lamontagne, to “Safe Travels,” a humorous hymn of fearful compassion, Hannigan is unbiased in her exploration of life’s journey. Her knack for coupling the joyous liberation of possibility with the saddened reflection of love’s stubborn impermanence is never more transparent than on “Little Bird,” the album’s strongest and most poetic song. “You are lonely as a church/Despite the queuing out your door/I am empty as a promise, no more,” Hannigan shares with the delicate finger-picking of a guitar and the quiet moan of a violin. Yet, as always, the songwriter’s hopeful resolve trumps her perpetual bereavement. “I think of you often/But for once I meant what I said,” Hannigan sings over a suddenly stirring chorus line.
With the assistance of veteran producer Joe Henry, Passenger promises a bigger, bolder sound than the endearing but broken-down feel of Sea Sew. Yet, ironically, Hannigan and her band recorded Passenger in only a week, eager to capture the first-take intimacy that ultimately does permeate throughout this entire bunch of songs. The imperfections are what Hannigan enjoys the most. “It’s not the perfect shiny bits that you like best, it’s the weird ones – as long as they’re not out of tune,” she notes laughingly. Playing last month at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, Hannigan and the boys proved that they certainly are at their best live on stage. Blazing fearlessly through tracks old and new, including a spare and elegant version of Sea Sew’s hit, “Lille,” Hannigan was devoted to the performance. The highlight was the close – an electrifying rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” culminating in an explosion of stately drumming, wailing guitars, and thumping piano, with Hannigan banging away on a rarely-used dulcimer, shuddering and shaking until her voice settled into a deep whisper.
On Passenger, Hannigan is fitting her observations on lost love and new paths into a warm, subtle craft that is growing in the surprisingly witty depth that seems to be battling Hannigan’s graceful voice to become her trademark. The result is a first-rate album, anchored by the comfort of Hannigan’s singular voice but beautifully and unfailingly accompanied by a mixture of guitars, drums, keys and violins expertly produced and operated with steady emotion by Hannigan’s excellent backing band. “I’m really enjoying myself,” exclaims Hannigan. So are her listeners – here’s hoping for more good things to come.