The first lines on Squirrel Flower’s third release I Was Born Swimming sound defeatist. “I tried to be lyrical but lyrics failed me,” Ella Williams sings. “So I gave up poetry and ran west on I-80.”
But what follows isn’t an admission of giving up, or quieting down. Maybe she abandoned her notebook for adventure on the particular day she mentions on opening track “I-80,” but, on the whole, lyrics are where she succeeds—not fails—throughout I Was Born Swimming’s swirling 35 minutes. Using what sounds like a range of pedals, Williams captures a specific, slow-burning mood with her guitar, then accentuates the soft parts with her sharp storytelling style. It’s not a startling record whatsoever: I Was Born Swimming simmers, with only the occasional burst of unhinged noise jumping out of the boiling pot like a rogue piece of pasta.
Throughout the album, she achieves an extraordinarily rare balance between thrash and whispers. One song she’s raging, the next she’s nearly meditating. Following a three-minute “Rush” of emotion and unease (which features slick, echoey guitar work not unlike something you’d hear on an early-2000s Kings of Leon release), Williams sails into the relaxed “Belly of the City.” It’s one of many delightful transitions.
Another of those louder moments screams through on rock number “Red Shoulder,” which smolders with a bit of steaming California ’90s alt-rock (though Williams is from the Northeast) before spazzing out with a scream of electric guitars. She makes a sunburn sound sexy, singing “Red on your shoulder / Soft to the touch.” It’s an intimate gesture, but I’d still recommend some aloe and maybe a regimen of SPF 75.
The concept of heat—and its relationship with water—continues to play a prominent role on I Was Born Swimming. The title refers to Williams’ birth; she arrived on Aug. 11, 1996 (the hottest day of that year) netted in a translucent caul sac membrane and surrounded by amniotic fluid. Most of this album seems spent in the lonely hours, from birth to adulthood. On the title track, which closes out the record, Williams sings, “Born swimmin’ in blue water / Didn’t ever need another / Now I live underwater.” She goes on, “Heat’s rising, can you see it shimmer?” It’s only February, but that line is enough to make anyone sweat.
“I don’t know what I would do if not this,” Williams sings on “Slapback,” which features an Arabic bell pattern and a fiercely independent claim about body image and agency. “Good thing my body’s for my eyes only / I own it and will attack,” Williams drones on in the chorus. But the best line just might be “If you slap me, I’ll slap you right back”—a fair warning for anyone who may be a threat to this singing Squirrel.
Much of this album is about traveling, specifically driving. The melodically spooky “Headlights” tracks a journey “through a wooded valley west of state” and offers a scrambling of perspective. “Headlights look different when I’m looking over my shoulder,” Williams sings, after again referencing her birth and the fleeting youth that has taken place since then. “Realize I’m not getting older / But I’m not getting younger,” she sings, targeting those ailing twenty-somethings who complain of old age with every new year.
The record’s best triumph is the mostly instrumental “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” I Was Born Swimming is music for in-between times, for Februarys and Indian summers, and “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is a most beautiful intermission. Williams spends a couple minutes playing with a locomotive beat before spouting a single folk verse: “When the moon hits the ground and the fog goes in / I’ll be feelin’ fine again / When?the?birds fly away?when the corn is green / I’ll be?squishin’ the mud beneath my feet.” As with many of these songs, she says a lot with a little.
Comparing female singer/songwriters with guitars to Julien Baker is a tired exercise at this point, but it’s hard to avoid while listening to the gorgeous “Headlights,” which glistens with the same insecure knowledge and sparkly noodling that Baker so often employed on Turn Out the Lights. Squirrel Flower’s striking similarities to her predecessors (which could partly be owed to veteran indie producer Gabe Wax) may be this record’s only downfall: From the pacing and the delivery to the smoothness of the production and the guitar work, I Was Born Swimming often feels like a rehash of a Mitski record. But Williams climbs into entirely new territory lyrically, and chances are no one’s going to be calling her a copycat.
Throughout I Was Born Swimming, Williams pokes around in her own mind while wearing a tiny headlamp, digging up romantic evening encounters, lonely late-night drives and midnight beach jaunts. It never quite feels like daylight. But the instrumentation is such that the record never feels cold, either. You’ll just want to sink into it, like a warm bath, or maybe a 4 p.m. ocean that’s been baking in the hot sun all day. Ella Williams is a master of opposites: She leads us both into the empty water and through the hot, crowded streets.
Revisit Squirrel Flower’s 2018 Daytrotter session: