Naming a favorite artist is always a tricky thing—be they authors, musicians, filmmakers, painters. Whatever. Heck, naming a top ten list is usually nerve wracking enough. With musicians, I find it easier to pare things down and list by category. Say, my top favorite guitar players or live performers. This drives my music purist friends up the wall—they don’t seem to appreciate my running the light through a prism, so to speak, and breaking the beam into separate colors. I suppose I can see their point.
Nonetheless, when I saw the always-amazing Dar Williams at Eddie’s Attic here in Decatur recently, it struck me that she joins Tom Waits (Tom Waits for no man) and Leonard Cohen in my trinity of top favorite lyricists. Well, she did that night, anyway. Frankly, I think she would on most nights. For the record, I cheat a little. I don’t count Paul Simon, Lennon and McCartney (or George Harrison), or Bob Dylan, because I think they’re just givens. And my lists shifts a bit with my moods and circumstance, often including the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Mercer, Stan Rogers, Paul Williams, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Randy Newman, Kristen Hall, both of the Indigo Girls, Johnny Cash, and the Sherman Brothers (if you don’t know them, you haven’t been watching enough classic Disney). But when it comes to the sheer poetry, to elegant turns of phrase that strike unexpectedly deep notes of emotional resonance, Dar is just about always at the very top. One of her early albums features a song called “You’re Aging Well,” and at times, even after I’ve heard it a thousand million times, it can still sneak up on me unexpectedly and make me weep, because, for some reason I can’t quite explain, it reminds me, deeply in the heart, of my wife, Carol.
Dar’s new album, The Promised Land, is no exception. (I can call her Dar, because I met her once. She may not know it, but I am certain that we bonded.) Sure, Promised Land includes a cover tune: “Midnight Radio” from the rock musical Hedwig And The Angry Itch. But even there, Dar has made it her own. The original comes across as tragic; the cover, oddly, is almost soothing. The rest of the album is original, and its vintage Dar. Deep emotions that both cut and heal—and more than once, inspire a good laugh.
Social causes are never far from Dar’s music, although she never descends to treacley didacticism. Songs like “Buzzer” raise questions that are hard to answer, but the catchy, up-tempo melodies make them fun to listen to, and listen to again. “The Business Of Things” and “The Tide Falls Away” are almost astonishingly poignant.
If you know Dar’s music, you’ve likely already heard this album. If not, well, think of the realm of Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow, with lyrics that can be mentioned in the same sentence as Waits, Cohen, Williams, Newman, Mercer, Dylan, and Simon. The Promised Land is a good place to start. But then, so is The Honesty Room, My Better Self, The Beauty of the Rain, The Green World, or … heck, any of them.Do yourself a favor and listen. Closely. Then listen again.