About halfway into Tomorrow’s Fire, the third album Ella Williams has recorded as Squirrel Flower, the Chicago indie-rock artist sings about leaving quietly out the back of a party, disappearing without saying goodbye to anyone. “I’ve had my fun, I’m done,” she tell us on “Almost Pulled Away,” over a steady drumbeat and a dizzying, crunchy riff. She’s just told someone that they might’ve been the first person she’s ever loved, a treacherous confession that should leave her resigned and vulnerable. Yet Williams’ delivery feels impenetrably grounded. Fittingly for a singer-songwriter who seems to gather strength in dark, ambiguous moments, what could be an act of avoidance starts feeling like a firm epiphany. Maybe she’s crazy to be going it alone, but the more likely truth is that it’s the strongest thing she’s ever done.
Tomorrow’s Fire is Squirrel Flower’s most outwardly rocking record. While her 2020 indie-folk debut I Was Born Swimming explored the restless growing pains of early-in-life transformation, and 2021’s Planet (i) dealt with climate anxiety and natural disasters, Tomorrow’s Fire fuses the two, offering a hard, unflinching look at an amalgamation of those stressors. These days, Williams is learning to stand up for herself and cut her losses, all while toiling away endlessly and living in the midst of global catastrophe. She cites artists like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen as inspirations for her storytelling, and their influence is clearest on tracks like “Canyon” and “Alley Light,” where Williams narrates travel tales over hypnotic, trance-like guitar swells that recall Springsteen super-fans, the War On Drugs. (WOD bassist Dave Hartley plays on this record.)
The album opens with a tranquil reimagining of the first-ever Squirrel Flower song, “I Don’t Use A Trash Can,” with Williams singing in a low register, backed by cascading harmonies, as if she’s in conversation with her past selves. It’s a song about her resistance to getting clean just yet, an ode to lingering wide-eyed in the mess for a while longer: “I’m not gonna change my sheets,” she sings. “I will never wash my hands.” In the older recording, Williams’ voice is tinged with desperation. Here, it’s coded with defiance. Throughout Tomorrow’s Fire, Williams sounds strategically self-effacing while also cradling a quiet, growing inner certainty. The result feels like the sound of someone coming into their own, albeit not without some rough patches; she still gets good and angry, but where rage used to feel like a deadend in her previous songs, here it drives her forward.
Even on the record’s more upbeat moments, you can’t escape Williams’ cutting honesty. “Intheskatepark,” a bouncy snapshot of a sweltering summer crush, becomes a consideration of performed romantic nonchalance. “I thought if I told you slowly, you’d be feeling the same way,” she sings, highlighting how the intensity of our feelings can seep through whatever facade we put up. This also comes through pn the screeching “Stick,” in which Williams is self-aware enough to acknowledge the flimsiness of her convictions, singing “I laid down a stick and you crossed it…I had a light but you lost it.” We crash into people and systems and jobs with a sincere inability to be kind or careful with our hearts. We work ourselves down to the bone even though it “doesn’t pay the rent,” as Williams laments on “Full Time Job.”
As Tomorrow’s Fire winds down, Williams considers that control, and loosens her grip. “In this life, I cannot hold anything in my hands,” she sings over reverb-heavy pluckings on “What Kind of Dream is This?” Williams has noted that the album’s title cites a novel written by her great-grandfather, in which he quotes the Medieval French poet Rutebeuf: “Tomorrow’s hopes provide my dinner/Tomorrow’s fire must warm tonight.” She describes her symbolic definition of fire as an antidote to nihilism, the hope we need to withstand the inevitably fleeting nature of life. This album burns with it.