[9 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Reflections is essentially a continuation of Don Williams’ 2012 album And So It Goes, which itself was a belated continuation of his solo career, albeit in an especially ruminative direction. That career began back in the 1970s, when he had #1 country singles like “I Wouldn’t Want to Live If You Didn’t Love Me”, “Til the Rivers All Run Dry”, “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend”, “Tulsa Time”, and several others. His singing voice has always had a rock-solid, eternal quality—not ageless so much as lived-in and wise, even when he was relatively young.
On Reflections his presence is gentle but steadfast; his patient approach occupies a particular spot in the country-music landscape, one that seems rare when set next to most hits of today. It’s also one that seems in communication with the actual landscape of country-music mythology: the rivers, the mountains, a train rolling across the prairie. Williams sings with a calm tone that suggests he’s observing life from a remove, up high, even when he’s singing in the first-person as a wayward soul tangling with a wild love affair. He has a way of suggesting the wisdom of experience in a tender way while also putting us into moments of love and struggle.
Reflections ends with a specific rumination on wisdom which reflects that line he walks—“The Answer”. In it, he lends the voice of authority to the act of gently submitting to the fact that we can never know all the answers. A fool, he sings, is “someone who believes they have the answers” to life’s big questions. Purposeful or not, I can’t help but consider the song’s placement at the end of the album a rejoinder or at least correction to what’s becoming a country-music habit, or even rule: the practice of ending an album with a proclamation of religious faith.
Williams has a relaxed way with life-and-death subject matter. The music, too, is comfortable, as on the carpe diem anthem “Talk Is Cheap” (a Guy Clark co-writer which Alan Jackson recorded a version of in 2012). The passing of time is a big theme of that song, and of the album (true of And So It Goes as well). Time is always a factor in these songs, be it a prison song (the Merle Haggard classic “Sing Me Back Home”) or a love song. There are some gorgeous, complicated love songs here, like Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” and Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning”, which opens the album. It’s a matter-of-fact reading of the song, balancing the tenderness of love with the coldness of the open road, within his singing.
Williams just as skillfully tackles poetic love songs like those and potentially cheesier ones like Britton Cameron’s “I Won’t Give Up On You”. Though the song would seem more treacly in another singer’s hands, its talk of solid ground is convincing in Williams’ voice, and along the way makes us think of him, too. Constancy is a both a theme in the songs and a trait of Williams as a singer. Reflections in that way does seem like a reflection of a career built on that characteristic. There’s a reason his nickname “the gentle giant of country” still feels right.