My Better Self
Infusing her songs with subtle politics, spiritual themes, and the power and beauty of nature, Dar Williams continues on her sixth studio release her strong tradition of fine songwriting as well as equally impressive powers of interpretation.
The album's opening song is "Teen for God," a deftly-constructed song which observes a teenage girl at a Bible camp, which can, depending on the listener's outlook, be read as gentle satire of either the fervently religious or cynical society. Towards the end of the song, the teenager flashes forward to college: "Then I'll laugh that I fell for the lure of the pain of desire to feel so pure/And I'll bear all the burdens of my little daily crimes, and wish I had a God for such cynical times." Williams' skill as a songwriter is how tuneful she can craft such heady observations without ever getting pedantic or weighing down the music.
There are two songs on the album about rivers, one being an lovely, prismatic travelogue along the Hudson River. The other is "Two Sides of a River," a song written about the Mississippi after a 2003 visit to New Orleans. It's striking for two reasons: one is the powerful blues style she chose to use, a sound that Dar is not used to using but which she pulls off quite well. Secondly, the tragic connotations that current events have lent her lyrics: "The river bides its own laws but it has no vows to keep/Know the tides of a river and pray, pray they don't shift in your sleep."
Although a fine songwriter, Dar also does a terrific job bringing something interesting and fresh to covering other writers' material as well. On My Better Self, she does a magificent take on Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" featuring an angelic vocal arrangement of Dar's multitracked voice, and with Marshall Crenshaw doing some of his finest vocal and guitar work in many a year.
Perhaps more interestingly, however, Dar has Ani DiFranco join her on a psychedelic-folk makeover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." In her view, it's a political lyric. "The song is a commentary on who we are in the aftermath of the last election, no matter who you voted for," she has explained. "On one level it is about a dream which seems to have died in our society and the ultra convenient numbing I am witnessing these days."
In addition to DiFranco and Crenshaw, Patty Larkin guests on one song, as does members of the group Soulive. Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, of The Hooters fame, also play on multiple tracks.
One can be forgiven for expecting an excellent album from Dar Williams, based on her track record. But even given her fine standards, My Better Self lives up to its name.