The deliberately slow solo piano version of a peppy pop song is a covers cliché, especially with online covers. But in the right hands it can still have power. We’ve profiled A.A. Williams’ forays in this style throughout the pandemic. Now she’s collected all of these covers on an album, Songs from Isolation; a very appropriate title given the mood of the songs and her sole presence on the recordings.
Most of the songs here are indeed solo piano renditions of rock songs, at a slower tempo, and most of the songs are quite famous. So the album does at least flirt with the internet cliché. But both Williams’ performances and the context she recorded them in give weight to these versions in a way that some random YouTube piano cover usually doesn’t.
The selection is a mix of major songs by major bands throughout the rock era. There are pretty obvious choices for covers, such as The Cure’s “Lovesong,” Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” There are lesser hits like Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Every Day is Exactly the Same,” and Deftones’ “Be Quite and Drive.” And there’s a deep cut from the Smashing Pumpkins.
Some of these songs’ lyrics seem to fit the mood of the pandemic very well, whether they’re about pining about your faraway lover (“Lovesong”) or getting bored with how time just blends together (“Every Day is Exactly the Same”). Some highlight the mental fragility of living in lockdown (“Where is My Mind,” “Creep”) and others hint at a failed relationship (whether it’s Lightfoot’s version or The Moody Blues’).
Williams’ approach to these songs is mostly the same: slower tempo, solo piano, her voice. But she alters the melody noticeably in the Lightfoot, Cave, and Moody Blues covers, forcing us to hear the words in new light. I know all three of these songs too well, and hearing the slight change in melody initially threw me for a loop. For a couple of tracks Williams breaks out the electric guitar instead – and on one cover she actually uses loops – but the mood is the same: somber and searching.
At a different time, a record like Songs from Isolation might seem too dour, too depressing, too one-note. But Williams has done a pretty good job of capturing the feeling of being stuck in your house, unable to see family and friends, except at a distance or over videoconferencing software none of us had ever heard of before March 2020. It’s a fitting soundtrack to what will likely be the strangest extended experience most of us ever live through.