There is an undeniable science fiction mood to both the title and cover of Squirrel Flower’s new album Planet (i) (not to mention that Adrian Utley is credited with playing ‘space guitars’ on it). However, the songs themselves are firmly rooted in our current reality, as Ella Williams battles daily bouts of personal and global malaise, merely dreaming of a utopian future on a whole new planet – a fresh start.
In reality, though, she knows that there’s no such luxury. Instead of fixating on that dream, she dedicates her new album to penetrating these bleak times with her powerful voice and uncompromising honesty. This begins with the opening “I’ll Go Running”, a slowly burning pyre of passion where she promises both candour and exhausting commitment to her craft and, in turn, her listeners: “I’ll tell you everything / I’ll give away every part.” It’s a vow that she makes good on throughout Planet (i), whether singing from her own unique experiences or taking in a wide-angle view of humanity and our place in the universe.
On the personal scale, we have several songs that deal with romantic entanglement. The most cutting is album stand out “Hurt A Fly”, where she takes on the role of a narcissistic man who woos a woman into bed on false pretences, only to act all innocent in the morning. Here, Williams’ crunchy guitar and Matt Brown’s rippling percussion give the song a livewire anger that grates up against the weak man’s words, displaying her true feeling towards this coward.
Other forays into affairs of the heart are more tender, but no less emotionally charged. On “Iowa 146”, her tale of intimately swapping songs with a partner is wonderfully underscored by ebow, mandolin and bells. “Big Beast” lures us in with lo-fi familiarity, only to punch a whole through the peace with a bluster of guitars that animate the “Storm clouds in my mind / The lightning in my mind’s eye.”
This tendency that Williams has of interweaving her inner emotional climate with the breathable aura of nature was on magical display through last year’s debut album, I Was Born Swimming, and it’s something she hones further here. On “Pass”, we find her meditating on the predictability of a comfortable life, only to have her emotions suddenly thrown into turmoil, which she evokes beautifully by singing “Walking home through the lightning bugs / Tornado came right down with no forewarning / And carried me up to the constellation.” Taken at face value, “Deluge In The South” is beautifully loping love song full of balmy melodies, but a closer inspection of the words reveals a some unavoidably scary realities strung between: “They’re freaking out in Texas / Deluge in the south,” she comments, and without changing tone, offers: I will take you in / Wrap you up again.” In the tender “Desert Wildflowers”, the most stripped-back track on the record, she confesses “I’ve seen the desert now, and I know I want the water.”
Continually using natural metaphors to express herself is a truly beguiling trick; on top of providing bountiful imagery to reflect her feelings, it also invites you to inspect her words on multiple levels. On the surface, it makes her personal love and emotions all the more palpable. But raking over these naturalistic, torrential lines can lead to trains of thought about the environment, about humans’ effect on the beauty of our planet, and of the thousands affected by the Climate Crisis and other natural disasters. She reminds us of the mortal pain in these cataclysmic events; that the thousands affected are all individuals with their own loves and worries.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Planet (i) should finish with “Starshine”, Squirrel Flower looking up to the cosmos and projecting both her love and her fear to the celestial powers. “I’ll still burn,” she affirms, as if there could be any doubt about that, given how much passion she’s already poured out across the record. But then she reminds us of the most important lesson, and perhaps the subtext to the record as a whole: “Don’t let it pass / Don’t let it wither.” Whatever that ‘it’ might be for you (it could be infinite things), Squirrel Flower’s passion and music are here to remind you not to take it for granted – who knows how long it’ll last.