Daily Worker
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Daily Worker Writes a Strong New Chapter with ‘Autofiction’

If you like mid-period Beatles and Byrds, Wilco at their lightest, the Stones at their brightest, and Big Star, you’ll like Daily Worker’s Autofiction.

Daily Worker
Bobo Integral
3 February 2023

“FM sages, Rock of Ages, will I get my turn?” asks Harold Whit Williams, the one-person band behind the Daily Worker moniker, on “Dilettante”, a song on his new album Autofiction. Although Williams is a productive pop-rock talent—he has been recording as Daily Worker since 2012—he is little-known outside of his home base in Austin, Texas, where his beguiling lead guitar was the secret weapon in Cotton Mather during its 1990s heyday (he still plays with the band’s founder Robert Harrison).

A partial answer to his question may be discerned in the song’s very title. “Dilettante” is Williams’s slightly pejorative word choice to acknowledge—as he does throughout Autofiction—that music isn’t all he does. It’s hard even for the most dedicated musician to get on the airwaves. It’s even more complicated if you’re also “holding down this nine-to-five”, as Williams sings on “Pearls”. For years he has worked a steady day job, and he also widely publishes his accomplished poetry in addition to self-releasing his music. The Che Guevara-style portrait and power-to-the-people font on Daily Worker’s Bandcamp site are a misdirection. Williams isn’t pushing revolution; he’s pulling down a regular paycheck. “Dilettante” implies that it’s a dubious business for a middle-aged archivist to keep cranking out tunes—even tunes as tasty as “Dilettante”—on evenings and weekends unless they eventually find some commercial success.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about being heard by the masses, and he isn’t going to stop trying. In the chorus of “Dilettante”, Williams borrows from the Beatles and the Bible to announce: “And this bird can sing / But forgot to put away childish things”—chief among them rock music, no doubt. But more ambivalence follows in the very next song, “Posers’ Parade”, in which the daily worker at the mic feels “so sad about the time I’ve wasted crafting silly charades” that he vows to “quit this poser’s parade”. Yet the very existence of the tune in which he makes that vow is evidence that he hasn’t quit, if indeed the “posers’ parade” is the one in which part-time musicians like Williams go marching unnoticed past the FM sages and Rock of Ages.

“Living well is the best revenge, they say / But I can’t tell, clocking into work today,” goes the refrain of “Poser’s Parade”. “Those [working] hours wield the power counterclockwise,” he sings on “Pearls”, and indeed there’s something slightly backward about the way we generally perceive the relationship between musicians and their lives. With his day job that confers health benefits and his fertile counterlife as a poet, Williams lives much better than all but the thinnest upper crust of rock lifers. It’s no secret that most musicians’ days are a scrap and a struggle: the hand-to-mouth poverty; the notoriously long, body-breaking van rides; too little (and terrible) food and too much bad drink and drugs; shyster promoters and rip-you-off publicists and shoddy record labels; more poverty; the dreary shows with 35 people in the club; the ill health, the long spells of unemployment and loneliness and boredom and the extra drugs that go with them; the poverty, the poverty, the poverty.

Compared to that meager existence, even the most self-doubting daily worker can tell that making a comfortable, honorable living is a sort of revenge. To commit himself to that living is part of why Williams left Cotton Mather 20 years ago. Nor does working for the man necessarily mean that you can’t also be a “successful” musician by popular measure. There are more supposedly “famous” artists than we may be aware of who are making their living doing something else. One trouble with the media age we live in is that the more resources we build for talented people to create and distribute their worthy work, the less sustenance and recognition there are to go around and give all the deserving artists the life they’ve earned, but don’t get to live (or that they refuse to suffer terribly for).

Autofiction has more good songs than probably three-quarters of the records people buy in significant quantities. If you like mid-period Beatles and Byrds, Wilco at their lightest, the Rolling Stones at their brightest, Tom Petty, Chris Bell-vintage Big Star—and, almost needless to say, Cotton Mather—you’ll like Autofiction. Williams takes all that input and makes the resulting output sound much more accessible and more straightforward than it is, and he adds his occasional wrinkle to keep it fresh. Even as an ostensible rock moonlighter, he’s a daily worker. Williams refines his musicianship, diligently purveys his craft, and has reached a level of proficiency that makes his abilities sound virtually second nature. Williams is the deceptively easygoing, long-tenured coworker who not only does his job excellently but could probably do everyone else’s, too.

On Autofiction, he does: Williams plays every instrument on the album, which he also self-produced. Although he’s best known as a crack lead guitarist (get Cotton Mather’s Kontiki and The Big Picture for evidence), he’s perfectly competent on drums, bass, and keyboards. Anyone who meets the minimum mental height to ride Garageband can come up with serviceable sounding music nowadays, given source material that is capably played (and sometimes even if it isn’t). If the trouble of our age is that it’s too easy for too many people to make something of high quality and then release it to low response, in a way that’s also the benefit. We all have immediate access to self-expression, which is to say that this is indeed the age of autofiction: the primacy of the manufacture of self, regardless of its recognition or consumption by anyone else. For anyone with something to say and the will to say it, there’s technology at the ready to enable it, and nothing more is asked of us than to be just who we are. As long as we stay true to ourselves, authenticity isn’t hard to maintain.

Of course, there are drawbacks to that free state of play—and maybe it isn’t so free. On the title track, Williams compares autofiction to a cage he can’t escape. It’s not only that we’re caught in the snare between the ease of making music and the difficulty in getting it heard. Another catch is that with the increased accessibility of technology and creative platforms, the lower the bar gets for objective excellence. That isn’t to say Autofiction is creatively deficient. One listen to the irresistible, infinitely singable chorus hook of “The Great Whatever” (what a title!) is enough to prove otherwise, not to mention Williams’ reliably stellar guitar playing throughout the album. But our world no longer requires that the best ideas get the best treatment. Immoderately good composition modestly rendered is enough for us. A generation ago, most of Autofiction’s songs might have been regarded as top-quality demos. Now they’re acceptable as a finished product.

Imagine, though, what might be possible if Williams had the budget with a traditional record label to rent a state-of-the-art studio and equipment; hire a proper producer, engineer, and some ace session players; and attract an even more ace manager and art director. Then the FM sages might have no choice but to give the Daily Worker his chance, and it’s hard to believe that songs as hummable as “The Great Whatever” wouldn’t make good on it.

Instead, like so much good music, Autofiction is at risk of drifting past the Rock of Ages unacknowledged and straight into the Great Whatever: that cutout bin of recorded history where thousands of quality albums end up. “All those flats and sharps and whatnot that you captured / Are circling around the drain,” Williams laments on “Pearls”. It’s not for nothing that the album’s opening track, a spot-on Revolver echo, is called “Irish Goodbye”—an idiom for slipping out through a side or back door without anyone noticing. But it’s worth taking a moment of salutation for Autofiction and for a daily worker whose output is consistently better than most of his lifer peers ever reach. Maybe that’s his best revenge.

RATING 7 / 10