By Annie Parnell, Editor
Boston-based indie folk artist Squirrel Flower (Ella Williams) starts her newest album, Planet (i), with a promise. “I’ll tell you everything, I’ll give away every part,” she croons in the beginning of “I’ll Go Running,” a vow for candor that repeats as a refrain over distorted minor chords. As the song unfolds, she swears “I’ll be newer than before” into a cathartic backing build. Her voice explodes and then collapses into a near whisper.
“I’ll Go Running” is a powerful lead into an album that centers on this type of exhaustion. The promises, emotional purges, and rehashed fights of a volatile relationship all play out over rootsy guitars and backing instrumentals provided by producer Ali Chant (PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius), drummer Matt Brown, and Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
Williams describes Planet (i) as “a love letter to a disaster.” “Running,” in particular, is also a potent commentary on the expectations of vulnerability and authenticity that come with being what she calls “an artist in flux,” particularly within Squirrel Flower’s circles. The album’s wailing vocals and distorted chords are reminiscent of Mitski, who notoriously announced her “last show indefinitely” in 2019, explaining that she needed “time to be a human again.”
“Hurt a Fly” is perhaps more direct about this fatigue, with Williams announcing straight-up that she’s “not sure how much more of this shit I can take.” “Thought I was doing my best until you showed up,” she sings, her voice falling as the instruments behind her tumble disjointedly away.
“Deluge in the South” takes a softer tone, leading with acoustic guitars reminiscent of Ani DiFranco and Aimee Mann. The lyrics paint lush imagery of hummingbirds, drinking rainwater, and giving shelter from a storm.
Still, there’s a tension, with people “freaking out in Texas” and a lover pulling out a thread of the “silk and chiffon shining” that Williams has wrapped them in. “Now, let me unravel it,” she decides, before confessing that she’s tried her best to forgive but “nothing seems to do the trick.”
True to name, Planet (i) is distinctly preoccupied with physical place, zooming in on regions, states, and houses that provide its wandering, global scale with an intimate feel. “Iowa 146” revisits a nostalgic love story with an old partner, yearning for a simpler time before the two of them had “both grown and seen different kinds of things.” Her hushed, reed-like voice plays out over fingerstyle guitar reminiscent of Adrianne Lenker as Williams confesses “I can’t help reminiscing” and asks to be taken “back to the house where we lay.”
Other songs use environmental metaphors for emotional upheaval. “Roadkill” repeats a passenger’s rollicking pleas for a driver to “slow down” to avoid killing the animals in their path. In the first verse, Williams uses the grotesque, painful image of having a “sunburn in your eyes,” a visceral commentary on the pain of being blind to a destructive relationship.
“Desert Wildflowers,” meanwhile, delicately explores how it feels to look at the floodgates after a long drought of bottled-up needs and emotions, with even the hushed guitar carrying the tension of being afraid to take up space. Meekly, Squirrel Flower insists that she doesn’t “need much to grow,” but declares that, having seen the desert, she knows that now “I want the water.”
It’s a shakily optimistic conclusion to all the turmoil of Planet (i), one that takes a few more baby steps in album closer “Starshine.” Here, Williams reckons quietly with the fallout of idolizing a partner. The lyrics depict the Icarus-like folly of turning someone else into the sun and then getting too close.
“The sun doesn’t care if you made yourself small,” she explains. “It’ll still burn you.” It’s a nihilistic angle that’s inversely pretty empowering — particularly, in the final few lyrics, when the moon at last begins to rise.
Planet (i) is available now on all platforms.
Annie Parnell is an Associate Editor and Staff Writer with Country Queer and cohost of the radio show Cowboy Church. She also runs the newsletter Tugboat. Currently, she’s based in Charlottesville, Virginia.