The name of Squirrel Flower’s sophomore album reads like a lark at first. When trying to figure out what to title her new record, Massachussettes singer/songwriter Ella Williams eventually settled on Planet (i) for two reasons. First, she thought it was goofy, but the title also was an attempt to draw a comparison between the atmosphere of the album and a world of its own.
If creating a unique planet of hazy folk and fuzzy rock songs was her goal, then Williams has broadly succeeded. Her latest is a blurry recollection of a specific time and place, filled equally with clear memories of the past and muted reflections on what could have been. For the most part, Planet (i) is a solid soundtrack for when you’re feeling nostalgic about an old relationship, a dramatic summer, or both.
The strongest attribute of Planet (i) is the sense of nature that rings throughout it. In lines about lightning bugs, the sun burning in someone’s eyes, and wild thunderstorms, you can practically see the seasons changing from spring to summer in the foreground of this album. These themes clearly appear in the lyrics, but Williams flourishes at getting the sweaty aura to come through in the instrumentation, too. Some of the most appealing songs here seem like they should be performed around a campfire—“Deluge in the South” uses winding acoustic guitars and brushed percussion to create a gorgeous, early highlight of the album—and while you’d probably be getting bit by mosquitos, you’d also easily be awed by Williams’ light and arresting voice.
It’s easy to feel the same way about the stunning ballad “Iowa 146,” where Williams sings about an ex-partner she lived with in the Midwest. The backdrop here is subtle, with fingerpicked guitars and an occasional touch of piano deployed to provide a sense of alt-country ambiance, but the song’s power comes from Williams’ thoughts about her history in Iowa. “I could play your guitar and let it all fall away,” she sings, remembering a lovely moment of tenderness while a swirling mellotron melody wanders in the background.
One of Williams’ most consistent strengths as a songwriter is that she knows when to kick things into high gear. While plenty of Planet (i) hangs out in a pleasing stupor, the best tracks are the full-fledged indie-rock anthems. On “Roadkill,” you’ll find the best chorus that Squirrel Flower has ever written. It’s like what would happen if Williams was rewriting a lost, crunchy Soccer Mommy tune. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how truly giant this hook is. When the majority of an album thrives on steady vibes, a grade-A hook will come out of left field in the best way. A similar swagger appears on “Flames and Flat Tires,” which features a smoldering, woozy opening riff while we hear about the joys of “veering down cobblestone streets at four in the morning.” Eventually, the reverb-soaked vocals and distorted keyboard parts coalesce into an unexpectedly explosive finale.
While atmosphere is where Planet (i) most clearly triumphs, it’s also the root of the album’s largest issue. A handful of cuts here blend together, becoming beholden to maintaining the album’s specific mood. It comes across as if certain songs exist to build up Planet (i)’s aura, even when a tighter runtime would serve the album far better. The most obvious offender is “Night,” where a hint of shoegaze influence washes out any sense of the song’s specificity. Similar blandness arises from the punishing “Big Beast,” a quick track that falls apart with an unpleasantly overdriven ending. “Life here’s getting dull,” mutters Williams on “Pass,” a line that unfortunately articulates the few parts where Planet (i) doesn’t succeed.
The absolute greatest song on Planet (i) comes early. With the lead single, “Hurt a Fly,” Williams has created an excellent tune that’s based on bluesy pianos, stuttering drums, and an off-key guitar solo to top it off. Best of all is the track’s narrative, in which Williams sings from the perspective of an erratic, manipulative lover who ignores their own faults. She uses such wit and sharpness in creating this narrator that he comes across like a true bastard, a guy who’s both slightly charming and deeply exhausting. The lyric that summarizes the character best is also just an unforgettable line on its own: “I would never hurt a fly,” starts Williams, in character as the fuckboy narrator, “unless it wasted my time.”
It’s on songs like “Hurt a Fly” where Williams truly excels, pairing a specific ambience to a captivating story. While parts of Planet (i) can feel akin to standing out in the sun on a particularly sweltering day, Squirrel Flower’s talent as a chronicler of relationships and memories makes this album worth exploring.
Ethan Gordon is a writer living in Pittsburgh. His work can be found at No Ripcord, Vice, Mic and others.