Album Review: A.A. Williams – Forever Blue

[Bella Union; 2020]

It takes exactly 22 seconds to fall in love with Forever Blue. By that point, the plaintive piano that opens “All I Asked For (Was To End It All)” is joined by A.A. Williams’ dolefully exquisite voice to deliver the opening line: “If only I were someone else / I could have tried to help myself.” As opening couplets go, maybe it isn’t quite up there with Arab Strap’s “Packs of Three” but it has the same quality in using brevity to push a multi-layered idea. It’s a couplet that recognises the persistent duality of self-loathing people: wanting to be anyone but who they are, but also a recognition of self-worth, too. Williams feels a need to save the wretched soul that she no longer wishes to be, accepting that there is some value in her after all, but that maybe this only comes from someone else looking in. It’s an opening of immense power and contradiction and plays on ideas of empathy, worth and sentiment. It’s been circling around in my head for weeks since I first heard it.

“All I Asked For” also features strings swelling in the background, creating a sumptuous feeling of beautified melancholy that is the main atmospheric pull of the album as a whole – an uplifting sadness that is both despondent and also incredibly life-affirming. Williams’ voice is tremulous, almost hesitant in places, suggesting a fragility in her nature, but it is also swooping and soaring at times. It remains poised throughout, as Williams retains complete control over her work, displaying a masterful sense of autonomy for an artist on their debut album.

“Melt” comes next and opens a little like PJ Harvey working through a Robert Wyatt song; it’s elegant, pensive and just simply bloody gorgeous. The song has a haunted, tainted quality to it, bringing brooding bass and cinematic orchestration to the fore; it has the hallmarks of post-rock behemoths MONO, with whom Williams released a collaborative record at the tail end of last year. “Melt” has that reflective pause before a huge wave of noise hits – a technique used over and over on Forever Blue – but when it hits as it does here, then it’s a real goosebumps moment.

Williams is clearly not averse to collaboration, and the interplay of guest vocalists with her own voice is of particular interest as we unpick the layers of persona and meaning at play on the record. Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming uses a cool baritone on “Dirt”, while Cult of Luna’s Johannes Persson unleashes his fierce howls on very next track “Fearless”. The manner in which these guests are used feels symbiotic, as if they are extensions of Williams rather than separate entities in their own right. These male voices are not here to help or complement, but to frame and underline. The dynamic between Persson’s guttural hollers and Williams’ assertive stoicism on “Fearless” is particularly telling; an inverse to the standardised masculine/feminine discourse is revealed, wherein the emotional discord comes from the male presence, the calm from the female.

Forever Blue closes with “I’m Fine”, which sounds at once familiar but also magical in its uniqueness. Haunting piano, desolate strings and a defeated tone in the vocals combine to produce a sense of extravagant resignation, while suggesting a hint of hope in the acceptance of another. It’s emotionally raw and filled with self-deprecation, but ultimately “I’m Fine” is a rallying call of resilience and determined self-awareness. We’ve gone from the seeming fatalism of the album’s opening line to a denouement that offers hope. Glorious.

A.A. Williams’ recent ‘Songs from Isolation’ set is a video series of lockdown cover versions that includes quite frankly ridiculous choices – ones that at first appear to border on potential career suicide. Even though she takes on the colossal task of interpreting the likes of Radiohead, Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails, Williams comes away with the plaudits for morphing them sufficiently into sounding like her own. One watch of her reverb-soaked take on Deftones’ superlative “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” demonstrates not only her love and understanding of the original, but also a clear ability to strip the music to its spiritual core and allow it to breathe. And then she produces this album which strides high above those covers.

Her first solo performance was only in April 2019, forchristssake, yet A.A. Williams has reached a stage where she is running freely, where others this new to music are still cruising around the furniture, trying to pull themselves up. With Forever Blue, she has created an album for those who like to close their curtains when the sun is out; it’s a debut of richness, depth and genuinely shattering emotional engagement – pure melancholic majesty to lose yourself in.