A.A. Williams | Forever Blue | (Bella Union)
4 out of 5 stars
When the opening track of your debut album is titled “All I Asked for (Was to End It All)” and the accompanying pencil sketch black and white animated video depicts a dead nude female body with bugs crawling across it well, that’s an audacious beginning to anyone’s career.
Even if Chris Isaak got to the Forever Blue moniker first, the name absolutely applies to Williams’ music. Her evocative voice, a combination of Nico, Angel Olsen and the darker side of Chrissie Hynde, digs deep into these eight emotionally driven tracks. Williams has the soft/loud dynamics model figured out, as most of these longish songs (the average runs five minutes) start with just hushed guitar or piano and vocals, then often build to taut, widescreen crescendos. She returns to that conceptual well often but the execution never seems rote, clichéd or repetitious.
Sometimes as in “Dirt” the change is gradual as the instrumentation and volume grow progressively. But on others like “Love and Pain,” the transformation from softly strummed guitar and muted drums that start the song to a full blown sonic assault of thunderous chords, crashing percussion and layered keyboards that suddenly and startlingly shifts the song’s mood at 2:31 is breathtaking and powerful, partially because it’s so surprising.
Williams’ music is consistently dramatic and passionate, but not rocking. A comparison can be made to foreign art films where often deliberate pacing makes the movie resonate so forcefully. That’s what A.A. and her husband/bassist/co-conspirator Thomas Williams achieve here and it’s particularly effective on the chilling “Wait.”
There is a distinct black and white feel to this generally somber, moving music. That is also represented in Songs From Isolation, the set of solo, non-album videos Williams released on the internet during these quarantine times. It’s all covers (from Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Nick Cave and others) of tunes that have influenced her, filmed in stark, riveting black and white and a sort of visual adjunct to this disc’s direction.
Some guest vocalists also appear on the album to harmonize with Williams, but none as aggressively as Cult of Luna’s Johannes Persson who brings a fearsome dark metal growl to the already intense “Fearless.”
You’ll need to be in the right frame of mind to absorb the overall dour and challenging atmosphere of Forever Blue (pre-order). But the confidence and direction A.A. Williams projects makes it feel more like her fifth album rather than her first. It’s a stunning, haunting work that sets the stage for what should be an enthralling and even more provocative career.