My Better Self – Dar Williams
Razor and Tie 7930182944-2
Last time I heard Dar Williams's music, it was back in 2000 on the brilliant chronicle of making one's way through melancholia, The Green World. The unplanned absence of the singer-songwriter from my life over her last two releases left me looking forward to her latest, My Better Self. Seeing a front cover photo of her playfully showing off a blueberry stained tongue gave me the impression that this would be an upbeat work from someone who found a degree of serenity and is comfortably holding on to it.
A listen to "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You" acknowledges that the material won't be as cheerful as the album's name or cover art. And that's okay because Williams crafts splendid lyrics of inner conflicts and daily musings. But, it brings up something that's not as easy to deal with overall on her sixth studio release: a lack of focus. My Better Self mixes strong originals with three covers of varying success. Her touring band gives sympathetic support while the guest musicians don’t always create MVP work. For her, the album, to some degree, is a reaction of post-election 2004 with personal politics taking precedence. I hear engrossing character studies, while her most blatant political song, "Empire," runs along like a fevered dream of too many evenings watching 24 hour news channels and too many late nights reading blog entries.
Matters start well enough with "Teen For God," which finds Williams discussing how the urges of life are suppressed for the time being while thoughts concentrate on a Higher Being only to be supplanted by regrets that crop up in the future. She presents the scenario of what strict standards can do to a person without being overly righteous. It's probably one of the more humanistic portraits of lapsed Christianity found anywhere.
Her cover of Jules Shear's "Echoes" sounds just as vibrant as her own material because other than from his peers, Shear is one of his generation's more unrecognized songwriters.
(One of the advantages of writing a review is having a record company press release available which illuminates some of the artist's intentions. On her cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," Williams explains that it's a "commentary on who we are in the aftermath of the last election, no matter who you voted for." These intentions aren't available in the CD booklet, which causes the song's possible impact to be neutered. I'd have been interested in Williams using the title as the basis for another of her own insightful tunes.)
Of the guests who appear on "My Better Self," Soulive provides a foundation, and not much more of its known instrumental abilities, on the bluesy track, "Two Sides of the River." Marshall Crenshaw offers a nice counterpoint on vocals and lead guitar during a hoedown-like version of Neil Young's "Everybody Know This Is Nowhere." Ani DiFranco doesn't add much to the duet on the unnecessary "Comfortably Numb."
While I've mentioned some of the missteps found on "My Better Self," in the end, what holds much of it afloat is Williams' songwriting. She may strain a bit on tracks like "Beautiful Enemy" to make her political points in an artful manner, but her vision can be heard in full bloom on the closing track, "Hudson." Despite the uncertainty and fragile state of the present, she finds comfort in the vastness of nature and how it connects with and overcomes the human living among it.