Less than an hour south of Chicago, along the shores of Lake Michigan, sits the Indiana Dunes, a protected expanse of shoreline recently designated a National Park. When Ella Williams first visited the Dunes, she was awed by the juxtaposition of its natural splendor within the surrounding industrial corridor of Northwest Indiana. “Every time I go there, it changes my life,” she says, without a hint of hyperbole.“You stand in the marshlands and to your left is a steel factory belching fire and to your right is a nuclear power plant.” Across the water, Chicago waits, its glistening towers made possible by the same steel forged here. For as long as she’s been making music, Ella Williams’ songs have been products of the environments they’re written in, born out of the same world they so vividly hold a mirror to. This environment is where her magnetic new album, Tomorrow’s Fire, lives.
The music Williams makes as Squirrel Flower has always communicated a strong sense of place. Her self-released debut EP, 2015’s early winter songs from middle america, was written during her first year living in Iowa, where the winter months make those of her hometown, Boston, seem quaint by comparison. Since that first offering, Squirrel Flower has amassed a fanbase beyond the Boston DIY scene and released two more EPs and two full-lengths. The most recent, Planet (i), was laden with climate anxiety, while the subsequent Planet EP marked an important turning point in Williams’ prolific career; the collection of demos was the first self-produced material she’d released in some time. With a renewed confidence as a producer, she helmed Tomorrow’s Fire at Drop of Sun Studios in Asheville alongside storied engineer Alex Farrar (Wednesday, Indigo de Souza, Snail Mail). Williams and Farrar tracked many of the instruments, building the songs together during the first week, and then assembled a studio band that included Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver), Seth Kauffman (Angel Olsen band), Jake Lenderman (aka MJ Lenderman), and Dave Hartley (The War on Drugs) lending their contributions.
Before Tomorrow’s Fire, Squirrel Flower might’ve been labeled something like “indie folk,” but this is a rock record, made to be played loud. As if to signal this shift, the album opens with the soaring “i don’t use a trashcan,” a re-imagining of the first ever Squirrel Flower song. Williams returns to her past to demonstrate her growth as an artist and to nod to those early shows, when her voice, looped and minimalistic, had the power to silence a room. Lead singles “Full Time Job” and “When a Plant is Dying,” narrate the universal desperation that comes with living as an artist and pushing up against a world where that’s a challenging thing to be. The frustration in Williams’ lyrics is echoed by the music’s uninhibited, ferocious production. “There must be more to life/ Than being on time,” she sings on the latter’s towering chorus. Lyrics like that one are fated to become anthemic, and Tomorrow’s Fire overflows with them. “Doing my best is a full time job/ But it doesn’t pay the rent” Williams sings on “Full Time Job” over careening feedback, her steady delivery imposing order over a song that is, at its heart, about a loss of control.
Williams cites artists like Jason Molina, Tom Waits, and Springsteen as fonts of inspiration for Tomorrow’s Fire, musicians who knew how to write into the mind of a stranger, who could tell you the story of a life in under four minutes. “The songs I write are not always autobiographical, but they’re always true,” Williams says. Nowhere is Springsteen heard more clearly than on “Alley Light,” an electrifying song narrated from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck guy whose car is fated to die any day now and whose girl just wants to escape. There’s a vintage sheen to it, but “Alley Light” captures the very familiar feelings of loss that come with living in a 21st century city, where you blink and the storefronts change. Williams notes, “It’s about a man in me, or a man who I love, or even a man who is a stranger to me.”
The album glides effortlessly over emotional states of being, lightness and heaviness. “Intheskatepark,” written in the summer of 2019, four years later sounds like a dispatch from a bygone world. The scuzzy pop production nods to Guided By Voices, as Williams sings about crushing under summer sunshine. “I had a light,” Williams repeats mournfully on “Stick,” her voice at once aching and powerful, a sense of rage fermenting as the song goes on, until it explodes in the second half. “This song is about not wanting to compromise, just being at the end of your rope,” Williams says. “Stick” harnesses that exasperation and turns it into a battle cry for anyone who is exhausted but feels like they’re not working hard enough, who had to get a job they hate to make rent, who lost their light and can’t seem to find it again.
Tomorrow’s Fire might sound like the title of an apocalypse album, but it’s not. Tomorrow’s Fire references the title of a novel Williams’ great-grandfather Jay wrote about a troubadour, named for a line by the Medieval French poet Rutebeuf, a troubadour himself: “Tomorrow’s hopes provide my dinner/ Tomorrow’s fire must warm tonight.” Centuries on, the quote spoke to Williams, who describes the fire as a tool to wield in the face of nihilism. Tomorrow’s Fire is what we take solace in, what we know will make us feel okay in the morning, how we light the path we’re walking on.
Closing track “Finally Rain” speaks to the ambiguity of being a young person staring down climate catastrophe. The last verse is an homage to Williams’ relationship with her loved ones — ‘We won’t grow up.’ A stark realization, but also a manifesto. To be resolutely committed to a life of not ‘growing up,’ not losing our wonder while we’re still here.