[19 February 2009]
An avowed fan of folk singer Dar Williams’ first four proper albums, and a somewhat tentative one of her later work, I mark the main difference between her 1993-2000 output and what came afterwards as an unresolved fixation with the tensions of adolescence. As incisive an observer of this period of life as any artistic medium has ever produced, I’ll argue, what Williams’ offered in this initial, remarkable run of albums was not a traditionally romantic (or romantically angst-y) idealization of youth but rather startlingly clearheaded reflections on any number of childhood’s dramatic turning points. Find in her very best material a series of haunted snapshots of innocence at its terminus, whether it arrives via a dawning awareness of our corrupted environments (“The Great Unknown”, “When Sal’s Burned Down”), the fragility of our adult role models (“The Babysitter’s Here”, “After All”) or the loss of adolescence’s hopeful ambiguity to the imprisonment of adulthood (“When I Was a Boy”, “You’re Aging Well”). Even at their most overtly comic (“Alleluia”, “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed”) or topically mature (“February”, “If I Wrote You”), Williams’ songs were always infused with a distinctly youthful urgency, a determined faith in the importance of one’s own as-yet-undiluted perspective. It had become, along with her sharp wit and endearingly empathetic sweetness, her trademark.
So it follows quite naturally that Williams’ songwriting would eventually begin taking up the concerns of adulthood, as she herself matured on several fronts, into her forties, into married life, into the status of verging-on veteran of a generation of folk songwriters. It is a transformation none-too-subtly hinted at in “It’s Alright”, the jaunty opening track on her seventh release Promised Land: “It’s a sad and strange thing / but it’s time and I am changing / into something good or bad / well that’s your guess”, she sings. Even if the song itself is nominally addressed to a soon-to-be-ex-lover, it is a sentiment that could just as easily be dedicated to her lasting cult fan base. It also sets the reflective tone for the rest of Promised Land, an album every bit as inward-looking as anything Williams has written, only now far more concerned with having arrived at the ultimate destination of adulthood than, as has been the case in the past, the arduous journey towards it. Songs like “The Book of Love” (“This is who I am / it’s all the places that I’ve been / The fondness and regret / and every love that I’ve been in”) and “The Easy Way” (“I never took heavy words for granted / and I never took undeserved advantage”) are distinctly backwards-glancing, the need to exorcize the demons of the past eschewed in favor of sober reflections and calm acceptance.
The result is an album that often feels a bit too benign, if not simply in Williams’ considerably mellowed perspective than certainly in its music. Contrasted against her ‘90s new-folk peers, Williams always sat rather squarely in the middle of the road stylistically, being neither as radical (in both her music and her lack of confrontational candor) as Ani DiFranco nor as squarely traditional a folk storyteller or performer as occasional collaborator Richard Shindell. Even so, it had become typical of almost every new Dar Williams album to come equipped with at least one song with the potential to be a bouncy pop-crossover hit (see: “As Cool As I Am” on Mortal City, “What Do You Hear In These Sounds?” on End of the Summer, “What Do You Love More Than Love?” on The Green World, “Teen For God” on My Better Self). But, the twitchy acoustic rhythm of “Buzzer” aside, Promised Land lacks even that mild flash, instead continuing to follow the path towards unobtrusive, radio-friendly folk-rock that her albums have been on since 2003’s delicately polished The Beauty of the Rain.
But if Promised Land suggests a sonic record of Williams continuing to settle a little too comfortably into adulthood, she still has the ability to deliver a strong, if characteristically kind and subtle, lyrical punch. She’s at her best here when the songs find her stepping a little bit outside of herself. “Buzzer” is a paranoid first-person narrative contrasting a Milgram Experiment-esque scenario against a laundry list of social ills. “I get it now, I’m the face, I’m the cause of war / we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore”, she sings, following it to its logical end with less horror than a kind of chilly inevitability. The convoluted “The Business of Things” suggests either a masking of romantic relationship dynamics with professional ones or an odd conflation of the two (“this song belongs in the under represented ‘business break up’ category”, she writes in the liner notes). But the image put forth with “Everyone nods along / I have done nothing wrong / and it feels like a crime” cannot help but be devastating in any setting. “Go to the Woods” utilizes a popular forest-as-subconscious psychological trope (echoes of the therapy sessions in her earlier “What Do You Hear in These Sounds?”) but bluntly asks, “And if I was your memory / what would you do? / ‘Cause you know if you go back in time there’s something waiting for you.”
Still, the finest moment on Promised Land ends up being not one penned by Williams herself, but rather a lovely, muted cover of Stephen Trask’s “Midnight Radio”, originally written for John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (The album’s other cover is a likeable, if somewhat overly polite, reading of Fountains of Wayne’s wistful “Troubled Times”.) Backed by an understated yet wholly ominous guitar figure, Williams’ invocation of Trask’s role call of one generation’s musical icons (“Here’s to Patti / and Tina / and Yoko / Aretha / and Nona / and Nico / and me”) marks the song as her unofficial sequel to “Are You Out There”, her own classic ode to youthful transcendence through radio. It is the only song here that truly manages to connect to Williams’ past body of work in any meaningful way. It’s searching and ambivalent where the rest of Promised Land is thoroughly, however admirably, wise and resolved. Sometimes the journey is better when the answers aren’t right in front of us.