Dar Williams emotionally destroyed me in 1995. It was then that I heard a version of “When I Was a Boy” on a Los Angeles radio station’s benefit compilation. The story of the song with its exposing of vulnerabilities shook me to the core and revealed things in me that I didn’t realize existed. Since then, Dar Williams has been doing the same thing to more and more people with each song she writes and records. Her confessional songwriting and poignant lyrics are second to none and her voice angelic and affecting. My Better Self is Williams’ sixth album and it is already being called, rightly so, her best.
The album opens with a touching look at a teenager’s confusing relationship with religion in “Teen for God.” Williams says more in one song’s lyrics that some people try to get across in entire books. She then goes on to express how we can all change the world with simple gestures in “Echoes,” with a lyric like “Every time you open to kindness, make one connection used to divide us, it echoes all over the world.” She even started the `Echoes Initiative’ which is a community-based charities campaign. Marshall Crenshaw appears on a few songs, but none more potent than singing a duet of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” with Williams. Jazz band Soulive contribute to the jazz / blues number “Both Sides of the River,” which sounds like it could have come off of a Pink Floyd album. That in itself is not surprising considering that she and guest Ani DiFranco present their own version of Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” In the context of this time on this album, the song represents feelings post-election. This is a pairing I have been waiting years for and it couldn’t have sounded better. Hearing two silken voiced liberal ladies weave harmonies during the chorus is worth the price of the album alone. The words “The child is grown, the dream is gone / I have become comfortably numb” haven’t meant near this much since its release, and frankly makes the Scissor Sisters’ version just sound silly.
Dar sings songs that alternately spit fire and love. “So Close to My Heart” is a song to her newborn son, yet the song right after that one is “Beautiful Enemy,” which claims that “you’re not innocent, no one’s innocent.” The song reminds me of some of Elvis Costello’s early work, and if I didn’t know any better, would swear that it was another cover of a lost song from the My Aim is True sessions. As far as those songs that could destroy me? Boy, where do I begin? I don’t know if anything will ever affect me the way “When I Was a Boy” did, but “Blue Light of the Flame” and “You Rise and Meet the Day” are such beautiful songs that it’s hard not to be moved by either. Final song “The Hudson,” dedicated to the New York river, features fellow underground New England folk musician Patty Larkin.
Dar Williams would have always held a special place in my heart because of the way her early song touched something deep inside of me, but much to my surprise, she continued to write quality music long after. Now, she has written what is sure to go down as the best collection of material in her canon, My Better Self, making it one of the best and most apt titles ever penned. The album is one of politics, love and hate, but ultimately it is an album of great songs by the wonderful Dar Williams.
Dar Williams – The Honesty Room
Ani DiFranco – Out of Range
Joni Mitchell – Clouds