For an album that, in the words of its creator, boasts “an epic setting” and that draws upon Greek mythology in order to explore contemporary political, social and moral issues, Dar Williams’s In the Time of Gods strikes as a decidedly modest, low-key listening experience overall. No towering, large-scale American Doll Posse-esque opus, this (disappointing, perhaps, for those of us who were kind of hoping to see Dar don a selection of wigs and outfits for this venture). Rather, Williams offers a distilled (just 32 minutes) set of ten short songs that initially feels like one of her slightest releases to date.
That’s a fair assessment of the album, to some degree. Ultimately, though, In the Time of Gods plays a familiar Williams trick. That is, it works its spell by stealth, with much of what sounds unassuming, merely pleasant or even bland on first listening gaining poignancy and potency on subsequent plays. Following her admirable career retrospective Many Great Companions (2010), the record is Williams’s first album of new material since 2008’s The Promised Land. Sonically, it’s of-a-piece with that recording, boasting a crisp, subtly textured, delicate yet muscular sound, sympathetic production (by Kevin Killen, this time), and tasteful contributions from stalwarts including Larry Campbell, Charley Drayton, Gerry Leonard and Rob Hyman. The tone is primarily quiet and measured, but the record turns assertive when it needs to. Case in point is the taut, punchy opener “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything” — which finds solace from a world that’s “angry, cruel and furious” in the pages of a children’s book — and on the twangy dash of “You Will Ride With Me Tonight”. Meanwhile Williams’s poppier inclinations surface on the buoyant “Summer Child”.
Always a poetic, literate lyricist, skilled in her use of imagery and metaphor, Williams’s writing on In the Time of Gods combines the direct and the oblique. The lyrics often float suggestively around the emphatic statements of the songs’ titles. Mythic underpinnings emerge understatedly, and the songs sketch evocative yet ambiguous scenes of vulnerability, courage and resolve. A few of the tracks do feel under-worked — concluded before they’ve really gotten into enough — and that’s especially noticeable on an album as short as this one.
Elsewhere, however, the songs’ suggestiveness draws the listener in. The beautiful “This Earth” muses on creativity, invention and destruction. “I Have Been Around the World” is a touching, unabashed love song that acknowledges the world’s plenitude but finds it to not be a match for the presence of one particular person. And a mantle is passed on the atmospheric closer “Storm King” in which Williams’s protagonist steps gracefully into a power and guardianship borne of experience and wisdom.
The album’s sublime centrepieces, though, are the twinkling, rolling “The Light and the Sea” and the chiming “Crystal Creek”, the latter’s gorgeous, airy ambience counter-pointed effectively by some fairly disturbing lyrics (“I found a man and he was wrapped in a deer-skin / Riddled through with boxes of his friend’s ammunition”), the former aided by a lovely harmony vocal from Shawn Colvin, as it gently reveals what might be the record’s central thesis: “And it all comes down to me / To feel the presence of my soul / Amidst the torrents and the cold / Of the sea.”
What’s lacking in Williams’s work, these days, is the quirky humour and playfulness that were once defining characteristics of her music, and that still surface in her live shows. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine Williams penning a song like “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed” or “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” now, and the absence of more eccentric elements means that her work is less diverse, tonally, than it used to be, with nothing to counterbalance the overriding earnestness. In the Time of Gods doesn’t quite fulfill the possibilities suggested by its concept, either, and its amalgamation of ancient and modern concerns yields less than we might have hoped. Still, if the album fails to take Williams into the new directions that it promised, it remains a warm and engaging piece of work. Popular music that makes us feel the presence of the soul is pretty rare, these days. With In the Time of Gods, Williams has produced another accomplished album that, at its best, achieves precisely that.