LABEL: FULL TIME HOBBY / POLYVINYL
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE : This is where American Alternative Rock is in 2021.
Planet (I) is the second full album from singer-songwriter Ella Williams, recording as Squirrel Flower, released within 18 months. The follow up to last year’s strong debut I was born swimming, this collection of songs shows Williams’ growth in ambition, execution, and specifically, in lyric writing. This is state of the art Alternative Rock. If you need one record to act as a navigator for where American Indie is in 2021, Planet (I) can serve as that kind of lodestar.
Appropriately for an album entitled Planet (I), a sense of geography is essential for understanding Squirrel Flower. If I was born swimming was about the distance between Williams’ Massachusetts upbringing and a migration west to Iowa, Planet (I) expands further. The album was recorded in the UK in Bristol, a different kind of going west, with PJ Harvey collaborator Ali Chant. Iowa is still in the mix and there is a Boston flavour to the skewed guitar solo on ‘Hurt a Fly’. This is an album for travellers; packed full of roads, fast cars, deserts, storms and natural disasters.
This is the kind of second album that takes the successful components from the first and pushes them into sharper definition, closer to the extremes. In describing the record, Ella Williams spoke of how it represented her ‘inner and outer worlds’. One way that is apparent is that Squirrel Flower may be the most effective employer of the quiet/loud dynamic in 2021. ‘Big Beast’ begins sounding like a Joni Mitchell ballad before ‘the lightning in my mind’s eye’ thunders in like Soundgarden. Then the next track, ‘Roadkill’, resolves the tension with a hook-y chorus any number of power-pop heroes would have been proud of. While Squirrel Flower can bludgeon, they can also beguile, as the detailed, raw guitar textures of ‘Iowa 146’ prove. This is a record that rewards close listening.
Planet (I) also places Ella Williams in any plausible conversation about the best lyricists of 2021. She is vulnerable and inventive, but mostly just flat out quotable and memorable. Stand out track on the album is ‘Flames and Flat Tires’. A chorus like ‘you’d better watch out for me / flying down the road in flames and flat tires, baby’ is a primal scream loud enough to fill a festival field. It’s the kind of lyric you would hope that Springsteen or The Killers would be jealous of.
Planet (I) is released into a crowded marketplace of hugely talented American independent artists, with Cassandra Jenkins, Japanese Breakfast, Adrianne Lenker, Faye Webster, Skullcrusher and Lucy Dacus among many currently producing distinctive work. But Squirrel Flower is a voice that, fortified with a sense of place and direction, has an authentic, clear-sighted grip on what it takes to make great music in this new decade.