With Contact Sports, local singer-songwriter Squirrel Flower presents a clinical rendering of grungy guitar

Squirrel Flower, the alter ego of Boston native Ella Williams, wrote what would become Contact Sports in central Iowa, amidst—if we are to trust postcards—a bucolic vista of soybeans and a cerulean blue sky with exactly one barn, one silo, and one red tractor. Eschewing any connection she might have to silos and tractors, Williams transports listeners instead to a cold, industrial space—a warehouse, maybe—where she lifts each song like a poetic crate. The sounds emanating from this warehouse are raw: edgy, distorted guitars à la Mitski, plodding and minimalist arrangements, trademark DIY buzzes, and, on top of it all, Williams’ composed vocals. Her brooding lyrics invite listeners inward as they echo across her cerebral stockroom.

The lyrics lie somewhere between matter-of-fact recounting and unfettered feeling. In an interview with The Scarlet & Black, a student newspaper at Grinnell College where Williams studies, she describes herself as  “a very sensitive person” who feels strongly in general, but notes that her writing is “less based on emotions and more [on] observations.” This human paradox—having detached perceptions  of subjective emotions—plays out continuously on the album, generating eery tension. On the track “Conditions,” for instance, Williams anesthetizes a relationship: “I’ll be gentle and I’ll take it slowly / Just as long as you say you don’t need me / I’ll do you right and I’ll take it steady / But when I say go you better be ready.” Her tone is controlled and clinical, in stark contrast to the mellow fuzz and warmth of her lo-fi arrangement. As the buzzing instruments come to a passionate climax, guitars wail and cry out in a chordal flurry, belying the notion of a thoroughly detached examination. The song, like the album, strikes an unsettling balance between passion and analysis.

A similar dynamic presents itself in “Not Your Prey.” While the lyrics clearly convey fury in lines like, “Don’t fuck with me. If I must, you know I will / I’m not your prey, I’m not your kill,” the crunchy guitar and bass trudge along mechanically. It feels cyclical, as if the riff is searching for a center it can’t quite find, and mesmerizing. It’s a menacing but listless riff, and, considering the subject matter, it’s a captivating riff. Why does the guitar avoid the angry energy of Soccer Mommy? Why do the vocals avoid the emotive and furious style of Sia? The answer may lie in a poetic interpretation of Williams’ style. She concludes with the line, “To give up my belongings, the little things / Is to be free of the chains that keep me here / Lying in your arms.” This line evokes the danger of resignation—a resignation already heard in the tired and cyclical trudging of the bass, but always contrasted by her lyrical acuity. Williams’ arrangement taps into this ambiguous dynamic, incorporating competing thematic elements. But, in the end, what better way to combat resignation than with rebellious grunge?

As the album progresses it becomes more mellow and thematically diverse. In particular, the two bonus tracks, “On Being Alone” and “Chicago,” depart from the grunge and earlier themes of relationship scrutiny. They’re atmospheric, sparse, and electronic, introducing an oscillating keyboard to the mix. There’s a repeated refrain, too, in “On Being Alone,” which seems to approach prior themes from a different vantage point. Williams sings, “I’m not thinking about the past now.” Squirrel Flower is evolving right before our very eyes. The weights in her warehouse have been lifted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.