It is easy to forget that Forever Blue is the debut album from AA Williams, such is the level of status she has already acquired since first taking to the stage only last year. In the meantime, she has garnered a huge amount of critical acclaim, released a self-titled EP, and collaborated with Mono before releasing Forever Blue.
There is currently quite a trend of singer-songwriters bridging the divide between tender folky music and metal. On some of those records, the “heavy” elements seem to be making up for a lack of depth or originality in the actual songwriting. That is emphatically not the case here. The record is heartfelt, sincere, and melancholic, and the musical arrangements always feel like they are there to augment the songs rather than vice versa.
One of the most notable characteristics of Forever Blue is its expert use of a dynamic range. Many of the songs modulate between fragile intimacy and epic grandiosity. Sometimes these changes happen as a slow-burn and at other times they are sudden. Williams herself says “there’s something very satisfying and elating about songs that have that drop in them, to stomp on the guitar pedal on and let it all out”.
And in using the word “elating” Williams hits on another important point. For, whilst this album is unarguably dark, the music is also often hopeful, even euphoric. Williams says she feels as though “a weight has been lifted” when she verbalises negative feelings as songs. It seems that this experience can also be shared by listeners. The waves of Williams’ ethereal voice soothes us as they wash over, and as the layers of exquisitely arranged orchestration build, we are somehow lifted with them.
The musical arrangements are varied but always cohesive. There are spacey synthesizer sounds, acoustic guitars, pianos, bowed strings, full heavy rock band arrangements, and often Williams’ voice is layered up to create a dreamlike choir. There are also three guest vocalists: Johannes Persson and Fredrik Kihlberg (both from Cult of Luna) plus Tom Fleming (of one True Pairing and ex-Wild Beasts). The guest singers all provide a fitting counterpoint to Williams’ songs. Persson’s feral growl, in particular, lifts the heavy section of “Fearless” almost all the way into the progressive metal territory; this step is somewhat unexpected but it works. The focus is less on riffs and more on soundscapes and atmospheres – the actual melodic substance of the music almost all comes from Williams’ voice itself.
The production supports the music wonderfully. The more fragile sections feel close and intimate, and the bigger sections are ferociously heavy without any clarity or subtlety being lost. Williams’ voice always remains at the centre. There is a pleasing analogue warmth throughout which lends the sound an air of nostalgia perfectly befitting the songs.
The key element is the quality of songwriting. Highlights include the perversely uplifting “All I Asked For (Was To End It All)”, “Fearless” with its terrifying crescendo, and “Love and Pain”, with its folky refrains that sit happily alongside massive post-rock. Album closer “I’m Fine” is mournful and full of sorrow, but it leaves a sweet, rather than bitter, taste. As it fades out we are left with a sample of birdsong; a kind of palette-cleansing experience that indicates to us that we can awaken, rejuvenated, and cleansed following the catharsis of the album’s experience.
Forever Blue is not the sound of someone wallowing in their pain and misery. Rather, the overriding feeling is one of transcendence – of rising above life’s difficulties in order to experience salvation and joy. Not everyone will appreciate the breadth of the sonic palette here, but those with minds open to both emotional fragility and crushing power will greatly appreciate the way that Forever Blue uses both – and everything in between – in its delivery of classic and faultless songs from the heart.
9 / 10