Out Here Listening
135 · 28 August 97
Dar Williams: End of the Summer
There are slow and quick pleasures, joys that coalesce out of shapelessness and ecstasies that erupt as soon as they are touched. There are albums I put on, where, within seconds of the first noise, I am having the experience I bought the album for. The first guitar howl on the new The Gathering album, the first bar of sample chatter on the new Jesus Jones record, the first giddy swirl on the Orange Peels' Square -- sometimes genius, or whatever it is that draws me, at any rate, arrives without preamble. Which is, of course, fine. If an artwork's thesis is simple, there's no reason why it shouldn't be stated clearly and promptly. This is not, however, the only progression art can adopt. Too much, these days, it seems to me, in music (and in books, and especially in movies), fidgets with a strident and pathetic urgency born of the belief (often well justified, admittedly) that the audience's capacity and willingness to suspend judgment are like a rotorless helicopter's will to fly. But some of the best books take a hundred pages or two to draw you in; some of the best movies sink in after they finish, rather than vanishing from your mind without a trace. Some stories that carry you places ask you to demonstrate your readiness for the voyage by taking the first few steps yourself. They do so at their commercial peril, since subtle grace and elliptical development are hard to compress into breathless interjection or quantify as a number of stars, but a few foolhardy examples still try to approach their task without the sugary Pepsi-taste-test mentality of instant gratification or none.
Dar Williams albums are, for me, of this rare, brave sort. A minute after putting one on, I don't have the slightest idea what I feel about it. Even after I've heard it once, all the way through, I have no reaction. I read the lyrics, scanning for glaring inspiration, and have no idea whether I've found any or not. I grasp, impatiently, for shortcuts to understanding, because life is so short, and so full of records. But as my hands come back empty, Dar's spirit lays a hand on my shoulder. "Breathe", it says, motioning at its chest in an encouraging mimicry of the act. "Not all paintings are Pictionary, not all journeys are sprints. There is no 'quality time', there are only time and attention. They are precious, yes, but what are you hoarding them for, if not to eventually spend? Unless you slow down, all shapes are blurs."
So I stop, and I calm myself. I empty the other four slots of the CD changer, so that even my electronics are not distracted. And I play the record, and I just listen. Then I play it again while I construct a spreadsheet to chronicle the Revolution's implacable decline. And again while I unpack and alphabetize all my paperbacks, and again while I read Endymion, and again at work while I hook up the hyperlinks in our Help system, and again through a half-open window while I sit in my hammock and admire my weeds, and three nights running as I fall asleep, and twice while I'm on the phone, and once while I wander around my new home with a small desk lamp, trying to figure where the electricity that goes through the unexplained lightswitch on my second landing ever comes out.
My reactions to End of the Summer go through three stages as these diligent repetitions slowly accomplish their purpose. The first one, which dominates the first few sessions, is a cool, rational assessment of the album's production. Mortal City, Dar's second album, started to edge away, discernibly, from bare guitar-and-voice folk, but only "As Cool As I Am" really embraced its pop arrangement firmly enough to disconcert folk purists much. End of the Summer, with full bands on more than half of the songs, seethes with electric guitars, atmospheric keyboards, programmed drum loops, one song that is an unabashed party-rock rave-up, and several others that attempt plausible crossovers at other fords. There are still several folk songs that retain their quiet aplomb, but the center has clearly shifted. Dar must realize the risk she runs by doing this; this album is far enough into pop to lose some of her old folk fans, and may not be far enough to replace them from the pop ranks. She could easily spend an interview tour alternately defending it to an existing audience that feels a bit betrayed and abandoned, and trying to introduce herself to a new one that lacks the patience to hear her out. Many people have made the transition from folk to pop before Dar, of course, but it isn't my impression that Dar is actually trying to convert. This is neither a pop album with folk anomalies, nor a folk album flirting with pop, it's an album of conflated impulses, an album that doesn't quite see why the two must be separate to begin with. I don't either, personally, and conflicting urges are one of my favorite productive tensions, so this ambivalence seems perfectly natural to me, but if the dividing line is clear in your eyes, Dar's disregard may strike you as obliviousness.
My second reaction, actually, inches toward this. I don't mind the musical experimentation, and the slower songs provide their share of introspective detail ("Are You Out There" is like a reworking of Triumph's "Magic Power" that doesn't think retreating into the radio is triumphant; "If I Wrote You" is a strangely disturbing song about the destructive power of honesty; "My Friends" is a clear self-portrait woven, Escher-like, into the lines that form clear portraits of the singer's friends), but as I start to follow the lyrics I discover that the clever pop songs have thin, clever texts to go along with them, and that begins to unnerve me. My creeping awe at Mortal City was largely a function of the complex emotions woven into Dar's narratives, songs where hope and empathy and frightened confusion refused to give way to easy fury, vindictiveness or defiance. But here we get songs about partying, the self-indulgence of therapy, simple optimism and long car trips, and a bouncy centerpiece, called "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts", that is even more of a joke song than "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed", on Mortal City. I don't want joke songs from Dar. She is clever, but cleverness is not nearly as scarce as true insight, and I'd rather supply my need for wit from sources that have only that to offer, and save Dar for bigger truths. For a few repetitions, End of the Summer starts to sound to me like an album that has actually lost patience with itself, and the shift in musical moods begins to seem significant, after all, and ominous.
But one of the things I thought I learned from Mortal City, after following it through a similar cycle of acclimation, was that Dar's songs are never, actually, glib. I dismissed half of that album's songs, only to recant on every one, song by song, as I listened to them more closely and discovered their nuances. And as I keep listening to End of the Summer, sure enough, these begin winning me over the same way. "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts" is not a facetious anti-anthem, it's a sincere passing of the torch. Behind the drinking games and late-night donut runs of "Party Generation" is a slow, spreading hollowness that eventually even the protagonist can't avoid noticing. Much of Ray Davies' "Better Things" is generic encouragement, but Dar delivers the chorus, "It's really good to see you rocking out", with just the right self-consciousness to make me imagine that this has become the supportive answer-song to Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Happy Girl". "What Do You Hear in These Sounds", after you get past the therapist jokes, is about the obsessive conviction that salvation is encoded into songs and memories and connections, and although I can't decide whether "who invented roses" is a sarcastic way of saying that we attribute intent where it doesn't belong, or a koan that is meant in seriousness, I suffer from this universe-as-puzzle delusion as pathologically as the song's narrator, so my inability to interpret the line plainly is its own analysis. "Road Buddy" is really about a quest for self-discovery whose only revelation is that physical pilgrimages, at least, if not all sorts, miss the point ("seeker of truth // follow no path / all paths lead where // truth is here", as cummings put it), and again there's something grimly obtuse about my searching for truth in a song about how truth isn't something you search for. But then you can't learn much about yourself without circularity.
As so I find myself, as my feelings about this album finally settle into what seems like a stable equilibrium, once again in awe. We are awed by different things, all of us, and so I can't say whether this album will awe you, too. It is hesitant and more than a little uncertain at heart, and hesitant and more than a little uncertain on the surface, as well. Some of the characters in these songs are probably pursuing phantom leads, and perhaps some of the musical impulses on this album will turn out to have been errors, as well. Maybe you have enough hesitation and uncertainty in your life already. Maybe I do, too, and this album is only encouraging bad habits. But whatever the case, this album's hesitation and uncertainty mirrors my own, and however misguided our shared melancholy paralysis is or isn't, I feel better knowing I don't occupy it alone.
Richard Shindell: Reunion Hill
Richard Shindell and Dar Williams share management, Richard sings backup on Dar's "Better Things", and Dar covered his song "Nora" on a single and is thanked here. Their new albums hit my CD store the same day, and they are easily my two favorite current folk musicians. Musically, Reunion Hill is almost a counterweight to End of the Summer; as Dar moves toward pop and processing, Richard is sliding slowly deeper into the countryside. The album is rich with violins, mandolins, bouzoukis, upright bass, bodhran, accordion and Lucy Kaplansky and Teresa Williams' high harmonies, echoing assorted country and folk traditions, but the extra instrumentation doesn't seem to me to make the songs seem any more complicated or contrived. Shindell's rich, warm voice (somewhere between a more-hushed Gordon Lightfoot and a less-precious Michael Stipe) and elegant, but unflashy, guitar picking, remain the souls of these songs. Jesse Colin Young's "Darkness, Darkness" is sung like an old Judy Collins ballad, and the wistful verses of Richard's own "I Saw My Youth Today" remind me of parts of "American Pie" and Dan Fogelberg's "Auld Lang Syne". "Beyond the Iron Gate"'s shuffling drums and easy sway and "Easy Street"'s gentle waltz cadences smell of straw and the beams of old barns. A few guitar figures feint towards Dire Straits or "The Boys of Summer", and every once in a while a flash of odd instrumentation and a half-spoken line will remind me of Bruce Cockburn, but producer Larry Campbell's pedal and lap steel guitars, sighing mournfully across much of the album, help keep it firmly grounded. Shindell doesn't fake a Southern accent, but his nasal voice has enough twang of its own that his version of Townes Van Zandt's "I'll Be Here in the Morning" could pass for country at a distance, and the semi-hidden bonus track, a cover of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home", is executed in perfect earnestness.
As pleasant as Reunion Hill is to listen to, however, Richard Shindell and Dar Williams are, in my opinion, folk music's two best storytellers, and so Richard's place in my heart, like Dar's, is as much a result of the stories he tells as how he tells them. Their storytelling styles are very different. Where Dar's songs always, to me, have Dar somewhere in them, even when the singer isn't explicitly a character, or is a character that couldn't be Dar herself, Richard's songs always seem to be about other characters, even when they're told in the first person. Like Raymond Carver, Shindell mostly lets his characters tell their own stories, so where Dar's songs explain and reveal and advocate, Richard's mostly just depict. Since most music marketing, these days, is largely based on selling the performer's personality and presence, this abstracted literary approach is commercially counterproductive, and thus not much in fashion (the only other artist I can think offhand of who consistently writes this way is Kate Bush), and even in the folk tradition omniscient narrators are much more common, but there are many stories that can be told properly in no other way. My favorite of these, and perhaps my favorite folk song, period (at least on days when I forget about "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"), is "Fishing", on Richard's previous album, Blue Divide. The song is, of all things, a transcript of an INS interrogation. The officer, whose monologue fills most of the song, vacillates between threatening to go after the deportee's family and friends, and reminiscing, prompted by reading in the man's file that he's a fisherman, about the summer fishing trips he and his friends used to go on when they were younger. I can't tell whether he's changing topics deliberately, in order to unnerve the man, or whether his attention simply wanders, and if he's doing it deliberately I can't tell whether he thinks he's drawing on the common experience of fishing in order to get the man to drop his guard, or is trying to intimidate and belittle him, emphasizing their different social stations, by contrasting his leisurely summer vacations with the deportee's low-wage hard-labor. In the final verse the deportee finally responds, but even then all three possibilities seem plausible.
Reunion Hill has four more songs with similar emotional texture. "Money for Floods" is narrated by a nineteen-year-old single mother living in a flood zone, and I can't quite figure out what either she or Shindell mean by the chorus' complaint that "Everyone knows that rivers will swell / But they always find money for floods". One theory is that she resents the fact that flood victims get federal aid while she has to work to support her child (but, welfare?), figuring that people who live in flood-prone areas know the risk they're taking, and so don't deserve sympathy or support, but this is a distinctly insensitive and bizarrely specific position for her to take or Richard to write a song about. There's also a rough analogy drawn between floods and pregnancy, which would mean that she thinks people who get pregnant at sixteen also don't deserve sympathy, but what "they always find money for floods" would be objecting to, in this self-incriminatory context, I don't see. I'm sure hypocrisy is somehow implicated, but the exact charge eludes me.
The other gender-reversed story of the four, "Reunion Hill" itself, is slightly simpler, a woman's vigil for her departed husband. Instead of dwelling on her loneliness or the dream that he might return, though, she relates a scene from his absence, when she cared for soldiers in a retreating army. I think it's the army her husband went off to join, now beaten back all the way to where he started from, but it could be the other one, which would make her "dousing for my husband's face" in the faces of the enemy's wounded an expression of compassion and hope that transcends the conflict entirely. The song also doesn't reveal whether Reunion Hill was a pre-existing name for the area, which would make it merely ironic that it was there from which she watched her husband's departure, or whether she has named it that because it was where she saw him last. And if the latter, does she really expect him to eventually return, or has she named the hill that as a way of accepting that he only returns to her in her memories and dreams? If she holds out hope, then the couplet that opens and closes the song, "Must've been in late September / When last I climbed Reunion Hill", is that hope slowly dying, but if she has accepted his death, then I don't know whether increasingly infrequent visits mean that she's fading toward her own death, or beginning to live again outside of her grief.
The third story, "May", resonates for me less because of the exact words than how they're sung. The narrator, this time, is a man fleeing from the law, for a crime not specified, calling from a phone booth to say goodbye to his wife. By the end of the song he's already about to be captured, so his flight doesn't seem like it's going to turn out to be very epic, and even if he escapes he doesn't expect to be much help ("I'll send a few quid when I can", the "quid" a nicely economical touch to establish the setting) but in the soaring chorus of his farewell, as he says "I know this is no kind of life, / But you've got to be strong / When you're a fugitive's wife", he leaves her a bit of uplifting drama, which she might need even more desperately than the money. Or, reading it another way, he's being selfish to the end, attempting to draw her into his punishment, in which case his self-assurance is fascinating for entirely different reasons.
My favorite story here, though, is the album's very first song, "The Next Best Western". I expected, from the title, for it to be someone's elegy to the vanished (and probably imaginary) way of life shown in old Westerns, and the compromised version of that fictional lifestyle that real people have been forced to substitute for it, but in fact the "Best Western" in the title is the motel chain. The narrator of this piece is a truck driver, who comes across a preacher on the radio during a late night drive. He hears the intensity in the man's voice, and wishes he had something he believed in that passionately, but all he can think to pray for, in his weariness, is to get to the next motel. He tries to make contact, however briefly, with a toll-taker as he crosses a state line (Richard: "Did he who made the Lamb / Put the tremble in the hand / That reaches out to take my quarter? / I look him in the eye, / But there isn't any time, / Just time enough to pass the tender"; Dar, in her song "Road Buddy": "We only stop at fastfood places. / They hate their jobs, I understand. / I try to act familiar, but they're floating just above the land", and "I thought I heard the toll man saying / 'I'll take that thing you got from praying'"), but random strangers never seem to fill even the most obvious walk-on roles in one's personal dramas. It's more than a little sad that we want them to, but statistically, with all the profoundly lonely people in the world, searching for just one truth as compelling as the gullible and content seem to find theirs, why shouldn't we look for a spark of recognition in every new gaze? It's obviously not as simple as any two lonelinesses canceling each other out, but how many valences of loneliness can there be? Then again, if it takes me a solid week to find the spark in a record, how do I expect to spot it in a person, in the instant our eyes meet as we speed past each other in our cars, each of us hurrying to somewhere else that had better not be our destiny?