Lisa Hannigan: “Passenger”

Lisa Hannigan’s second album, Passenger, comes adorned with a map on its front cover. I couldn’t tell you what city is being mapped, or even if the locale exists anywhere outside the singer’s head, but I do think it a fitting image. On Passenger, the Irish singer embarks to an interior geography that’s been traversed by many singers before, and will be explored by many singers to come; she’s mapping out her own destination, though, finding new roads leading to the same place. Which is to say, Passenger has the feel of a classic recording, and like one that only could have been made by Hannigan. It’s beautiful and soulful, warm and sad, and its songs are enlivened by her own indomitable spirit.

It comes with a sort of built-in concept, or at least a thematic hook on which to hang its hat. The idea of a “passenger” as an individual who stays with you, held tightly, throughout life’s journey is the conceit that unfolds in the title song, and it seems to inform everything that surrounds. These are songs of hushed intimacy and fraying bonds; of quiet melancholy and deep-seated hope. It’s ravishingly romantic even in its saddest moments, and its moments of greatest peace are held in place by the weight of temporality: “A Sail” is a solemn hymn to broken trust and fractured intimacy, “O Sleep” is a lover’s lullaby strained by distance, “Knots” is a bundle of anxiety, and even a song called “Home” uses melting snow as its primary metaphor, suggesting the ravages of time and separation that hold these songs in place. Hannigan’s spirit is not one of oppressive sadness, though, but of hopeful resolve; Passenger’s cartography of the soul feels like a mapping of the things that matter most, the things that can’t be left behind.

Ravishing beauty and deep feeling shine through these songs, which feel like they could be classics, even standards; Hannigan, who used to sing with Damien Rice, is a singer and songwriter who understands the sense of heft, the emotional gravity that comes from making music that feels time-tested but looks to tradition with no particular reverence. The songs here quite nicely split the difference between folk and pop idioms, something that’s clearer nowhere than on “What’ll I Do,” a fiddle-led dance that cloaks uncertainty in pure, unfettered play. “A Sail” and “Knots,” meanwhile, build tension not through gimmicks but through lyrics and melodies that gradually escalate their momentum, that lead the listener to conclusions that feel organic. Passenger stands as a reminder of just how moving a sense of craft can be—or, if you prefer, of how careful and precise this business of soulful, emotionally resonant music really is.

Hannigan’s co-craftsman on this one is producer Joe Henry, who gives this recording a very different feel from Hannigan’s Mercury-nominated debut, but also from anything he’s previously worked on. The hallmarks of Henry’s work are all here—soulful singing and playing, first-take intimacy, a focus on Song over all else—but what’s missing is the usual cast of characters. Henry and Hannigan recorded the album in Wales, with her backing band in tow but the regular cast of Garfield House players nowhere to be found; it’s initially difficult to peg it as a Henry joint without the steady thumping of Jay Bellerose’s drums, for instance, but the producer seems liberated to make a record that stands as something quite distinct from his normal output. Both “Knots” and “What’ll I Do” have an uncommon lightness to their step that are crucial to their success, while “Home” opens the album with a flourish of drama, a swelling anthem that harnesses the kind of drama that has sadly become linked with bands like Coldplay. The song, though orchestrated fairly heavily, is lively and soulful. It stands on its own.

As much as anything, the album testifies to the resourcefulness of Hannigan, her producer, and her band; there’s a fiddle here, a trumpet there, a duet vocal from Ray Lamontagne—and yet, the proceedings are spare and elegant, modeling warmth and a devoted sense of craft. It’s that sense of craft, from the songs up through the production, that suggests something of a calling card for Hannigan, whose voice as a singer and as a songwriter feels initially like one you’ve heard before but reveals itself to be singular, its sense of familiarity simply the result of how heavy, and how timeless, this material seems.


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