Album Review: A.A. Williams – Songs From Isolation

[Bella Union; 2021]

Riding on the success of the dreampop-infused, metal-inflected, and vocally mesmerizing debut album Forever Blue – one of 2020’s stellar releases – A.A. Williams returns with the Covid-prompted Songs From Isolation, a set of stripped-down covers in which the dark diva brings to center stage her hypnotically textured and doomily melancholy voice, accompanying herself mostly on piano.

The project launches with an evocative take on The Cure’s “Lovesong”. While the “tragic perspective” is tempered in the original by goth-y and new-wave instrumentation, as well as Robert Smith’s pop-sweet delivery, Williams brings into austere focus the tune’s inherent themes of loss and impermanence, offering an unadorned exposé on loneliness, disposability, and the ineluctability of death.

“Where Is My Mind”, from Pixies’ debut Surfer Rosa, is, in its original form, an alt-rollicky and semi-psychedelic track, an exemplar of the proto-grunge-pop that inspired Kurt Cobain. Williams strips away the instrumental pyrotechnics and self-deprecating swagger, embodying instead a disturbing sense of dislocation and confusion. “Way out in the water / see it swimming,” Williams moans, bringing to mind the closing image from Kate Chopin’s The Reawakening, in which the main character marches into the ocean, not turning back.

Williams innovatively transforms Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy “If You Could Read My Mind” into a neo-noir-ish manifesto, one that might fit well into the soundtrack of 2011’s gritty Drive, the 2015 sci-fi Ex Machina, or an episode from season 2 of True Detective. Williams’ “speaker” on “Creep” occurs as a depressive with agoraphobic leanings, a compelling shift from the original, in which Thom Yorke and Radiohead bring to life a stalker in the making ambivalently reveling in his own nascent psychosis.

Williams’ pacing is noticeably slow on her version of The Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin”, and as a result the song drags rather than being narcotically seductive. Williams’ take on the Deftones’ “Be Quiet and Drive” is the most aesthetically radical and theoretically intriguing take on the album, even if it doesn’t fully translate. Trent Reznor’s original version of “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” is a proto-industrial and modishly nihilistic view on the Sisyphus myth, but Williams takes a different tack, brilliantly highlighting the sense of self-doubt that underlies the song, flagellating herself for her own failures rather than offering a wry commentary on the insipidness of contemporary life. It’s gratifying to hear Williams’ sultry delivery of Nick Cave’s opening line to “Into My Arms”: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” That said, her version doesn’t significantly build on Cave’s wounded equipoise or offer a viable alternative.

Songs From Isolation closes with a take on The Smashing Pumpkins’ nine-and-a-half minute “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”. Fortunately, Williams’ version is approximately half that length. On one hand, she brings into focus the song’s quintessential prog-lyricism: “In the slipstream of thoughtless thoughts / the light of all that’s good / … to the fringes gladly I walk unadorned / with gods and their creations.” On the other hand, the song’s lethargic melody lags in Williams’ version even more than in the original, particularly given the absence of Billy Corgan and James Iha’s punctuative guitar parts.

Most of the takes on Songs From Isolation are engaging, if not provocative alternatives to the originals. Some are less successful, even if they constitute an ambitious undertaking. It might have been worthwhile if Williams had picked at least a couple of tunes more essentially divergent from her own style and energy. A Carpenters number? How about Big Star’s “13”? Maybe even a country song? At any rate, the nine tracks included give Williams an opportunity to pay tribute to a variety of artists, navigating the sequence in a movingly ‘unplugged’ and intimate manner.