[17 May 2007]
Folk’s answer to Avril Lavigne, or so Astrid Williamson has often been dubbed, is back after a three-year hiatus with Day of the Lone Wolf. This is the third solo album in the Scottish artist’s repertoire. Her first, entitled Boy for You, was released in 1996 following the break-up of Goya Dress, the band Williamson founded in the mid-1990s. As with Rooms, the Goya Dress debut, Boy for You received high, critical acclaim notwithstanding its lack of financial success. (The absence of a distribution deal in North America was largely to blame.) The launching of her own record label, the rightly named Incarnation, was what finally allowed Williamson to finance and release her second solo album, Astrid, in 2003. More importantly, the creation of her own label signaled Williamson’s successful attainment of some degree of autonomy in a business that she herself describes as shallow and corrupt. The Lone Wolf, at once more polished and funereal than her earlier efforts, makes good on Williamson’s newfound confidence. Fortunately, the new release is as far removed from the bratty vocal stylings of Lavigne as one can possibly get. Not to be understood comparatively, Williamson bodies forth sounds that haunt rather than overwhelm the somber quiet of ordinary landscapes. It is this quality more than anything else that sets her apart from pop’s upstarts.
Ordinariness is The Lone Wolf‘s overriding theme, one that is only heightened by the second track’s posited contrast with the extraordinary superpowers of Superman. The memorable, upbeat melodies of “Superman 2”, the first installment of which is on Astrid, make it the perfect single for Williamson’s third solo release. The video tellingly features intercuts between a half-laughing/half-singing Williamson, a bored Williamson sitting alone at home eating chocolate, and a sadly-costumed group of superheroes—Batman, Robin and Spiderman—who, armed with heart-shaped balloons, roses and champagne, are obviously on the lookout for love. Lucky for them, Williamson doesn’t answer the door; if she had, the heroes probably would have found themselves missing life as well as love, for the woman they pursue is armed with a toy laser rifle that is, admittedly, as impotent as the heroes themselves. This is a far cry from the Superman songs to which we have become used, if not for the song’s refusal to focus on masculine heroics, at least for the fact that the likeness of Superman is tellingly absent from the video. Indeed, Williamson compels us to believe, in accordance with the song’s chorus, that “ordinary people [possess] extraordinary life”.
So too does Williamson’s music itself. Aided by Dan Burke, Richard Yale, Christian Parsons, Mark Treffel, Sarah Willson, and Ruth Gottlieb, The Lone Wolf refuses to aspire to the frilly traps of the extraordinary. Whereas Lavigne wants to be “Anything But Ordinary”, Williamson stresses the value of the everyday. It is enough to love, to breathe, to die; in fact, these ordinary facts of life are precisely what makes life extraordinary. While critical of the alienation provoked by a consumer society, Williamson is equally vociferous about legitimating the banal things disavowed by such a society. When everything, including and perhaps especially music, is commodified, highlighting the positive, and more ordinary, side of human experience becomes pressing. Williamson’s voice, as she herself notes, was built for just this task. Eschewing the dramatic range of a Sarah McLachlan or the conversational tone of a Suzanne Vega, she slips into a vocal dress that somehow manages to express, effortlessly it seems, a wealth of heartfelt feelings. Self-assured and, thanks to her classical education at the Royal Scottish Academy, in complete control of her voice, Williamson brings forth the ordinary in a way that can only be described as cathartic. In her world, the extraordinary embodies not the glamourous, jet-set lifestyle achieved as a result of “making it” in the biz, but rather, those things that detract from and therefore heighten the solitary strains of human suffering.
A testament to her singularity, Williamson replaces surface with depth. Her use of the first person not only marks The Lone Wolf’s departure from Astrid, but it also marks her willingness to sing from a place apparently untouched by the special effects that produce the mere appearance of genuine expression elsewhere. Titling her fifth track “Amarylis”, she ably captures the essence of the lily after which the song is, presumably, named. Otherwise known as “Naked Ladies”, the amarylis signifies Williamson’s persistent exposure of her most inner self. “I love the way you look at me”, she practically whispers to the ordinary man. This is not a songstress who hides behind vague articulations of worldly desires; instead, Williamson softly welcomes the voyeur, any voyeur, to gaze upon her soul. Or, so the song makes us feel.
The creation of illusion is, perhaps, music’s primary function. The idea is to dress reality up in sounds that make it tolerable, beautiful even. Artifice is therefore a necessary ingredient of a song, though more than a tablespoon of it, as Lavigne reminds us, can end up making one sound like an impersonator, someone who knows they really are ordinary and must convince the world otherwise. Williamson manages to do what her fellow wolves cannot—namely: make her ordinariness appear extraordinary. Her music fleshes out, as opposed to conceals, her own and others’ reality. Alternating between the whispered suggestions of “Amarylis” to the full-bodied, champagne guitar of “Shhh…”, she elicits concern for the alienating effects of modern society—symbolized by the “Killer-Cola” T-shirt featured in the “Superman 2” video—but doesn’t reproduce them. If she haunts our landscapes, it’s because she continually reminds us of the possibilities our own drab routines suggest are illusory.
Ultimately, there is little that is folksy about this record. Bringing together a diverse set of influences, including—by her own admission—the Cure, Williamson crashes pop with meaning. In keeping with the name of her record label, she newly personifies a familiar genre, investing it with the flesh it tends to lack. Williamson herself does not refuse, even as she critiques, the popular label. Indeed, she admits to having taught the music industry’s most commodifiable lone women to young girls seeking vocal lessons. Her answer to Avril? “Avril’s OK,” she quips during an interview published by contactmusic.com. The statement attests to Williamson’s generosity when it comes to her fellow and, doubtless, lesser peers and, paradoxically, given the title of her latest release, her belief in the continuing importance of friendly, intersubjective relations in an industry dominated by the predatory howls of the pack.