And As Long As She's Got Noise, She's Fine
54 · 8 February 96
Dar Williams: Mortal City
I heard bits of Dar Williams' first album, The Honesty Room, but I didn't buy it. I had an explanation, though, for why I didn't find it compelling. Probably it's because I was a science nerd at an impressionable age, but I persist in thinking that anything that can be observed reliably can be explained. I spend much of my time looking for explanations for things I already know to be true. Said that way, it sounds like a strange way to carry on a life. I'm sure I could explain why I do it, if I thought about it hard enough. But let's not flirt unnecessarily with recursion. At least, not in these clothes.
Anyway, my explanation of Dar Williams had to do, grandiosely, with the nature of music as an art form, or the pop-song wing of music at least. It is, I think, an art form of repeated experience. We're going to generalize now, but think about the different forms of art in your life, and how many times you experience the average work in each of them. Each book you read, you probably read just once. Some people reread more than others, but still, on average, you probably don't experience most books repeatedly. The same with movies. Video has changed this, so maybe some of you see your average movie even twice, but it's still a relatively low-repetition form. Plays and musicals, by virtue of tending to be expensive, are probably the most singular. Excepting what the cast of Cats sees, I mean.
At the other extreme, there are paintings and public sculpture, things you hang on your own wall or walk by on your way to work, things that you experience thousands of times. And somewhere in the middle, but far above one, are pop songs. The ones you like, the ones you buy (and I recognize the materialist nature of this equation, but this is a review column, and who reads reviews and then doesn't buy music?), you play over and over again. This has enormous implications for the form, for what you can and can't easily do in it. If an art form is experienced repeatedly, then to be good an instance has to support that. You can write a mystery novel, or a film, that hinges entirely on the audience's ignorance, where the surprise of the ending is integral to the experience, and unrepeatable by its nature (sort of like that gum they used to have with the fruit center, which turned into tasteless rubber thirty seconds after you bit into the syrup). A song isn't going to work that way. A song could sound utterly brilliant the first time, but if you're sick of it by the third play, it's a failure.
So that's where, my theory went, Dar Williams tended to go wrong. She was obviously smart, and wrote intriguing lyrics, but the stories were lucid enough that you didn't need to hear them more than once to follow what was going on, and the music she put them to, I felt, wasn't that memorable, with the result that once you'd read the lyric sheet and heard the album through once or twice, you were really done with it. And personally, I buy way too many records like that already.
But I also live in thrall to the new-release rack, and this early in the year things are still only trickling out slowly, so a couple weeks ago when I found myself standing there holding Boys for Pele and a couple singles, and saw that Dar had a new album, I figured I'd give her a chance. After all, how bad could an album be with songs called "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed" and "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York", even if I only listened to it once?
Well, the first time through my theory looked pretty cogent. Mortal City has a bunch of songs where it's mainly just Dar singing and playing a little sketchy guitar, and then there are four with a band, and after listening to the album once, the four songs with a band sounded fine, and the rest were a sort of underwhelming blur. I might not have gotten any farther than that with it, except that one song, the first one, called "As Cool As I Am", was just amazing. I had to put the album on a few more times, just to hear it. And after hitting the backwards-skip button a couple times, I'd get lazy, and let the rest of the album play out, just as background to the thing I was reading, or dinner preparations, or whatever.
And that's how I discovered that my theory, while sensible and probably applicable to something in the world, turns out to have nothing to do with Dar Williams. Actually, it was only half involuntary discovery, facilitated in the other half by little feelings of guilt. I've got a couple shelves of folk albums, you see, where a perfectly competent singer-songwriter-guitarist's perfectly enjoyable songs are saddled with conventional rock-band arrangements for reasons that have everything to do with cowardly and unimaginative marketing, and nothing at all to do with the needs of the music. It bothers me that so few folk musicians are content to just do what they do, without feeling like they have to encumber themselves with bass and drums and the rest, in order to not frighten off whoever does the programming for those radio stations that seem to be called Magic no matter what city you're in. And so that part of me felt bad about only liking the songs here with a band, as if I'd turned against my own principles, and any day would find myself purchasing khaki pants, loafers and oxford shirts, and making a special point of being home to watch any awards show that Hootie and the Blowfish might win something on. So I kept listening, hoping to find myself liking the rest of Dar's record.
It didn't take long.
The album opens, as I said, with a song calculated to be an enormous hit. If "As Cool As I Am" only had some token bit of profanity that could be bleeped out, I think this might have become the song that all those people who bought Jagged Little Pill turned to next. It's got the sinuous drum loop, chattering with danceable exuberance. It's got that infectious buzzing midrange drone, which Glen and Alanis produced with guitars, but which Dar gets with William Galison's harmonica playing and Art Baron's pulsing digeridoo. It's got delicious vocal harmony from Katryna and Nerissa Nields. And it's got Dar singing about a breakup, complete with barbed insights. True, she doesn't sing with quite the deranged intensity of "You Oughta Know", and the relationship details are more thoughtful than vitriolic, but her voice trills nicely at the end of the choruses, and after all, people really did buy Suzanne Vega albums, once, so if a song about the abused kid upstairs could be a hit, then I don't think it's ridiculous to imagine that Dar could sell a million copies of a song that contains the line "I say it's loneliness suspended to our own like grappling hooks".
If they did, if they do, I hope they take the time to study the lyrics. The part of my Dar theory that said that you get the point of her songs the first time was as wrong as the other parts. The first time through "As Cool As I Am" you'll pick up on the chorus' tag line, "I will not be afraid of women", and you'll probably catch the part where the boyfriend says something about some woman having a halo, and Dar says "'Yeah, she's really blond'". And from this you'll be tempted to assume that the song is something of a catfight, a breakup song with vindictive claws out, the boyfriend left with only withering scorn to comfort him after the narrator leaves. As you'll find out once you pay attention to the whole thing, this isn't it at all. The boyfriend is involved and implicated, certainly, but this is much more about the narrator's own failings and uncertainties than it is about anything else. She isn't leaving him because he looks at other women, she's leaving him because she sees the other women, too, and because she both recognizes something of herself in them, and also doesn't see herself in them in ways, and knows that neither of these things are good signs. Her incantation about not being afraid of women is not a fight song, it's a mantra, and could also be said as "I will be who and what I am actively, and will not let the perceptions of men restrict me to a passive, reactive, combative, and most of all isolated, notion of what femininity consists of" (and Dar, bless her convoluted heart, would probably find a way to fit all that into the rhythm, too).
The three other band songs, all with Zev Katz on bass and Billy Ward drumming, aren't nearly as tailor-made for alterno-pop crossover. The first of them, in fact, was one of the songs that I figured, on first listen, would get old the fastest. It's called "The Christians and the Pagans", and when I read through the lyrics and found the cloying punch line "Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning", I didn't figure I'd be able to get through it more than twice. I revised this prediction upwards a little once I heard Lucy Kaplansky's boppy backing vocals and Larry Campbell's jangling mandolin. And now here I am listening to the song for about the eightieth time in a week, and though I still wince a little at the pumpkin pie bit (and at the goofy Christine Lavin-like catches in her voice when she says "Christmas is like Solstice"), I'm bouncing happily in my desk chair, and each time through some other detail seems especially poignant to me. Last time it was the uncle realizing that he hasn't talked to his brother in a year, and thinking of calling him up and saying "It's Christmas and your daughter's here". The time before that it was just the phrase "making sense of history", taken extremely literally (that is, the idea that history isn't inherently sensible, but that sense can be made out of it). And before that it was the way the niece says "'Jane I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay'", as if the two of them are sitting in a Gremlin by a roadside payphone somewhere, having only just now realized, unworriedly, as they drove away from the coven, that they hadn't planned for their next night's lodging yet.
The second band song is "The Ocean", on which Jeff Golub's ringing guitar chords and John Prine's gruff duet vocal provide musical flavor to a subtle song about towns and perceptions. It's not that often that a song achieves dialectic. Pop songs tend to be so short, and involve enough repetition, that there's scarcely enough time to make one point, let alone two. By extending her usual three-to-four-minute time frame to five, though, and letting the chorus help in the transformation rather than standing in its way, Dar manages to fit an actual exchange of thoughts into the song's confines, Prine's voice marking the reply of the person being sung to in the first half, explaining why the woman's idealized portrayal of his coastal-town life doesn't hold up under the scrutiny involved in actually living it. The last of the three is "The Blessings", probably the most conventional rock song here, especially with the repetition of the title in the chorus. Dar strays uncharacteristically out of storytelling mode here, break-up vignettes at the beginning and end bookending an interesting speculation in the middle about the nature of fortune.
The non-band material begins with "February", on which Dar's acoustic guitar and Erik Friedlander's cello duet gently, reminding me slightly of Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Years" (the cello here echoing "Years"' oboe). What sounds, on casual inspection, like a rather routine song about winter, turns out to be using winter only metaphorically, for a relationship that doesn't manage to survive its cold spell. I'm sure other people have used this device before, but I don't know how many of them have captured the numbing weariness of the experience the way Dar does when the woman, so swallowed up in the endless snow, finds herself unable to remember what a flower is, nor how many have thought to point out the way the winter's imprint stays on you even through other seasons, as the woman and her new lover spend their earliest, most glorious days just preparing firewood for the inevitable freeze to come.
Then there's "Iowa", subtitled "Traveling III" to connect it with The Honesty Room songs "Traveling Again" (I) and "I Love, I Love" (II) (and yes, I've now bought a copy, and am quickly realizing that I underestimated that album, too). Once, in college, during a rash of late-night poker games dominated by absurdly complicated variants with inane names like Mexican Smokestack, Screw Your Neighbor and Nine-Card Anaconda Baseball Rollout (if you don't have five aces, fold), I invented a poker game called Iowa. So named with the idea that Iowa was the most average place in the country, this game involved attempting to end up with the table's most average hand, a sort of inverse Hi-Lo. It seemed like an intriguing idea, but in practice nobody could begin to imagine a betting rationale, which sort of made the game unplayable. This song is not about my poker game, but I've yet to figure exactly what it is about. There's something of loss and regret, of trying to belatedly reclaim paths not taken, and there's the striking suburban-angst line "Tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion", but I haven't yet been able to assemble it all properly.
No such difficulties will assail you listening to "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed", a distinctly Christive Lavin-esque story-song that comes closest to the fears I had about songs that you'd only want to hear once. I still like it, but I won't ruin anything about it, in case for you it really does end up being disposable. It's about romance and hemp. "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York", from the title and arrangement, looks like it might be another such song, but I find enough compelling observations in it to give it enduring strength, despite the Eurodisney crack and the bit about trying to pack your worldly belongings into a Miata. I was going to say that it's odd that "This Was Pompeii" isn't "Traveling IV", but as soon as I started to type that I realized that this is, again, metaphor, the song no more about a real city buried in ash than "February" is about leap years and Groundhog Day. If there are low points to this album (and I'm not convinced there are), then this song, which just isn't quite as satisfyingly complicated as most of the others, is one, and "Family", the album's one cover, a Pierce Pettis song that doesn't seem up to Dar's own songwriting standard, is the other.
The album ends with the title track, "Mortal City". Over seven minutes long, an extended text accompanied chiefly by abstract atmospheric piano and keyboards, and some very spare cello and guitar, this song is the crowning example of Dar's stubborn willingness to let her stories dictate the structure of their songs, rather than vice versa. A disarmingly detailed narration of a tentative first date, during an ice storm, between a woman who just moved to an unnamed big city and the brother of somebody she works with, this is simultaneously a close study in human microdynamics and an oblique exploration of the microimplications of their macrodynamics. If "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York" found the charm in dying industrial towns, "Mortal City" finds both the hopelessly flawed design of the untenable cities people left the small towns for, and the tiny oases of hope that people insist on creating against the trend of surrounding decay. When the two people, after a meager dinner in an unheated apartment, simultaneously look at the empty space in the living room where a couch ought to have been, I sense their realizations both of the unacceptable, and yet routine, bleakness of their life surroundings, and yet at the same time of their own ability to overcome it. For a moment we wonder whether they have the energy to transcend the material void (and the spiritual one that it mirrors), and it suddenly seems like this, the labor necessary to make humanity out of machinery, is the essential urban flaw, not the inhumanity of the machinery in itself. It isn't the cars and the malls and the endless stacks of shoebox apartments themselves, it's how hard it is to turn the apartment skyscrapers into ersatz villages and the malls into commons. It's not the computers and the net, it's how hard it is to make them connect people, not separate them. It's not the number of machines, it's what we've done with them. We are not victims of progress, we are oblivious designers of our own downfall. "We had all this technology", Dar sings, "And then one city got bad planners". Perhaps the mantras to take from this album are variants of one from back at the beginning, modified just a little to suit our larger task: "I will not be afraid of people"; "I will not be afraid of machines". If fear is silent, then Mortal City is hopeful proof that even quiet noise, if you make it intently enough, can fill a room. From there it's just one step to being able to dance to music inside of us.
In the meantime, there's always Repeat.