In the early 2000s, singer-songwriter Anna-Lynne Williams recorded a trio of albums as part of Trespassers William, a band that’s often compared to the mopey, lovesick sounds of Mazzy Star. Roughly a decade later, in a duo with Robert Gomez, she released two albums as Ormonde, the first of which is less dreamy but still anguished, having been directly inspired by the beginning and end of a romantic saga the two musicians shared. And this album, Off White, is one of a handful Williams has now released under the pseudonym Lotte Kestner, a nod to unrequited love through the married name of Charlotte Buff, the real life Charlotte of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Considering her catalog, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Anna-Lynne Williams has carved out a niche for herself writing melancholy songs about loves both found and lost.
For her part, Lotte Kestner agrees – love and lovers are her frequent preoccupations. On “Ghosts,” she sings, “Fiercely, I thought/ That I knew something about/ The thing that I’m always singing ‘bout/ And I spend my body on/ Who did I need the most/ All of my lovers are ghosts.” It might be tempting to dismiss Williams’ efforts as obsessively single-minded – particularly if love and longing are not your thing – but that’s unfair. It ignores the depth, nuance and artistry with which she approaches her subject. Having spent years deeply meditating on the vagaries of romance, Williams’ observations are personal, genuine and profound.
There is also the sheer beauty of her music: Off White is a very strong collection of songs both delicate and doomed. They are carefully crafted, however similar enough to sound like they were cut from the same cloth, yet still independently unique. They favor arrangements that are spare but luxurious, built mostly around a single piano or acoustic guitar, at times embellished by the sound of an organ or strings. Reverb and other effects add subtle shades to the emotional palettes of individual songs by judiciously re-framing Williams’ voice, which often strays into wordless reveries.
Lyrically, there’s a thematic cohesion that’s deeper than just a shared subject, with similar images and motifs recurring throughout the album. Most recognizably, longing pervades, with Williams repeatedly betraying her desire for a love that is both profound and durable, in which intimacy connotes not just transparency but the feelings of security that come from acceptance and deep regard. On “Secret Longitude” she imagines, “Someone who won’t leave you/ …Who won’t hurt you/ When they have your skin,” a person who wouldn’t be offended if you said, “I’d rather go out into the sea alone/ Won’t you leave me alone,” and who will stand by your side, “When the waves attack/ The secret longitude where you’re at.”
The references in “Secret Longitude” to the sea and waves are just a few of the many watery or explicitly nautical words and images that frequently resurface on Off White. They’re obvious in songs like “Have You Sailed Home” and “Senses,” in which Williams sings about, “when the world is under miles of sea” and promises an unnamed lover that, “Yours is the name I’m calling/ Long as I breathe.” “Another Moon” mentions “a sea safely crossed,” and “Ashland” describes a lover whose whistling, “set the waters bubbling” and whose hand on the singer’s back is, “holding back every flood.”
Less direct references to life at sea float by in the title track, which mentions “clouds rolling out,” and “In Glass,” in which Williams may be using the stars to steer her ship: “The stars are slow/ At telling us where they have been/ Or if they’re there at all.” One of the album’s best songs – for its simple, un-showy beauty – is “Boat of Mine,” which uses the nautical theme to say what needs to be said: “…This boat of mine/ Travels in a straight line/ To you.”
This lovely album is not without its faults, however. Aside from the superfluous instrumental coda “Dead/Sea,” there’s “Go to Sleep Now,” a jarring intrusion into this otherwise placidly morose album. It’s the only song with drums (save a lone(ly) snare on “Ashland”). This isn’t a terrible choice in and of itself, but the beat is so uninspired (and the playing so uninspiring) that it ruins the track, a sin still not quite as terrible as the fact the drums obscure Williams’ words.
All of this unfortunately distracts from the fact that “Go to Sleep Now” underscores one of the vital features of Off White: that Anna-Lynne Williams’ voice – unforced, intimate, at times hushed or breathy – suggests these songs are lullabies. A lullaby is part love song, part incantation. Of course, that love is typically maternal not romantic, but accounting for that difference these songs still fit the mold. They’re the entreaties of a woman forlorn, hoping that her voice might miraculously rekindle lost love or, failing that, perhaps her singing can be the salve that brings her peace.