Rambling along the sidewalk on the way to a party, body alight, something catches the eye. “Bugs in the streetlight,” Ella O’Connor Williams sings. “Our time is over soon.”
Conventional wisdom says that this is not the sort of maxim typically uttered by a 23-year-old; nevertheless, this acute pang of mortality anchors “Streetlight Blues” and I Was Born Swimming, Ella O’Connor Williams’ debut record as Squirrel Flower.
Williams came to music by birthright, with two generations of classical and jazz-playing family members to pave the road. She began singing in the Boston Children’s Chorus and created her artistic persona as Squirrel Flower around the same time. Williams returned to the name as a teenager to perform her own material in DIY spaces around the city and released two EPs while attending college in Iowa.
Both in sound and scope, I Was Born Swimming centers on impermanence and solitude. Squirrel Flower sets time and place in conflict with themselves, both constantly shifting, but not necessarily progressing. Guitar lines sit suspended in air or erupt, churning with an intensity that makes their continuance feel immovable.
I Was Born Swimming was recorded live with producer Gabe Wax. Although his credentials include previous work on Adrianne Lenker‘s solo record, abysskiss, Squirrel Flower’s debut slots more easily alongside the catalog of Lenker’s band; Big Thief‘s last album, Two Hands, was similarly recorded live to capture the magnetism of performance. The strategy fills I Was Born Swimming with a warmth heard in the buzzing of a snare left unmuted on the delicate “Eight Hours,” the lush shakers on the sparse “Seasonal Affective Disorder” and the full-throated sound of Williams’ guitar playing, which, like her singing, occasionally slips into a country-blues-inflected idiom.
That lonesome tradition of wandering vagrants runs parallel to Williams’ work as she grapples with a sense of place (in Iowa on opening track “I-80”) or the absence of it (nights spent driving around in the shifting darkness on “Headlights”). “Realize I’m not getting older, but I’m not getting younger,” Williams sings on the latter. It’s a doomed precarity, the idea that recognizing your own mortality can make you feel isolated and found in equal parts. It’s also a young person’s acknowledgement that we’re not aging into any succeeding chapter of the history books; we are tasked with witnessing the last one.
The eternal question, therefore, when not staring at the vertigo-inducing dark maw of existential nihilism, is: If time is fleeting, what gives life meaning? I Was Born Swimming makes a case for looking inward, accepting how small and random we are, and leaving the self open to the beauty in the transience of things.