Squirrel Flower, the alter ego of Ella Williams, produced one of my favourite albums of 2020 I Was Born Swimming and I saw her play a transfixing show in London the same year. But now, with the release of new album Planet (i), we can fully appreciate what a truly gifted artist Williams is. No second album blues on display here, just another set of songs that perfectly cradle this rare voice.
Planet (i) had it’s beginnings pre-COVID, with Williams having written most of the songs already, but amidst a heavy touring schedule, three concussions, convalescence and then the pandemic coalesced with a lifelong fear of the elements and being carried away by storms, floods or the ocean. So Williams decided “to embody them, to stare them down” and use the isolation to work on demos. To me, it’s felt like artists fell into two camps when COVID hit. They either found their artistic well had dried up or it was like a fire hydrant had been uncapped and ideas wouldn’t stop gushing out. Williams was in the latter camp and amassed more than 30 ideas which she was also sharing with producer Ali Chant. So, in Autumn 2020 Williams flew to Bristol to work on the songs in Chant’s Playpen studio, and together they eschewed a live band in favour of playing nearly all the instruments themselves and building the songs layer by layer.
As with I Was Born Swimming, there is the same combination of scuffed folk, hazy pop and big-chorus ballads on Planet (i). Acoustic and lightly fuzzed electric guitars move around each other, and these include contributions from Portishead’s Adrian Utley who “brought such stunning textures to the arrangements” Williams says. Each song feels like it’s own world and it’s amazing that an album can contain achingly simple arrangements on tracks like ‘Desert Wildflowers’, the Nick Drake-like ‘Iowa 146’ and ‘Starshine’ and then dial up the distortion on ‘Hurt a Fly’ and ‘Big Beast’ (one of the many tracks that show what a fine drummer Matt Brown is). There is a delicate beauty in the harmonies of ‘Deluge in the South’ and the uniquely stylistic choice as it keeps slowing to a crawl before speeding up again, like a dying battery that manages to find more juice to carry on. And in this varied topography there is space for the anthemic ballads like ‘Roadkill’ that seem to come naturally to Williams who gives an immense mountain range of a chorus that keeps appearing from the mist of the verses.
Planet (i) is like a 12-course tasting menu from a Michelin starred restaurant. And despite the album being a “love letter to disaster in every form imaginable. Tornadoes, flooding, gaslighting assholes, cars on fire”, songs which “fully embrace a planet in ruin” the intimate nature of William’s voice seems to convey the idiom of ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’, even if that preparation involves escaping Earth to Squirrel Flower’s imagined Planet (i). This is an album to luxuriate in and appreciate the thought and work that has gone into its clarity of vision and execution. My admiration for Squirrel Flower is undiminished and this is an album that, by rights, will be considered a classic long after the storms, tornados, meteor strikes and plagues have nearly wiped us from the face of the Earth.
Review by Paul F Cook