All of Us Versus All That Paper
297 · 5 October 00
Dar Williams: The Green World
There are a limited number of notes in the Western scale, and a relatively limited number of practical tempo variations into which they can be mapped, so the remarkable thing, maybe, is how often you can hear the first few notes of a new song and not immediately think of some older one that used them first. Then again, do the math: there are either seven or twelve relative tones (depending on whether you allow sharps and flats; for the purposes of argument we'll collapse keys and octaves), times either eight or sixteen relative lengths (depending on how much timing granularity you think pop melodies really need), times three to five notes per hook, which yields somewhere between a couple hundred thousand (three whole tones in eighth-note resolution) and a couple hundred billion (five semitones in sixteenth-note resolution) possibilities, in the mathematical sense of the word. Rule out the ones that sound like crap and you're left with far fewer, but I bet the average person's melodic vocabulary contains only a few thousand songs, so random duplication will be, for most listeners, unusual.
Conscious duplication, of course, is not subject to math. I don't know if Dar Williams realizes that the first three notes on her new album are the first three notes of ABBA's "Dancing Queen", but I assume she does. If she didn't, while recording, surely keyboardist Rob Hyman or engineer William Wittman would have noticed, and pointed it out to her, therefore it seems reasonable to stipulate that the allusion is intentional. The two hooks quickly diverge, but they have similar periodicity and temper, and it's not hard for me to imagine that Dar's is what's left of ABBA's in her mind after a couple decades of erosion and neglect. I wondered whether this album, Dar's first since 1997's End of the Summer, would embrace pop wholeheartedly or reject it and retreat to folk, and it's tempting to treat this opening as an answer: Yes, this will be Dar's big pop crossover, and one of these songs will do for her what "Luka" did for Suzanne Vega, and from there success will sweep her gracefully away.
And all that might still happen, and I do believe that The Green World is a breakthrough of sorts, but it's not remotely the record that three notes from "Dancing Queen" would presage if left to their own devices. The intro to "Playing to the Firmament" lasts only twenty seconds, after which most of the instruments drop out and Dar's clipped, fluttery voice makes its unflappable appearance. I can interpolate a tenuous lyrical connection to "Dancing Queen" (ABBA's song is a shimmery paean to untroubled youth, and Dar's begins with an adult watching kids play), but "Playing to the Firmament" is tragic and noble, hardly ABBA's primary character traits. "Having the time of your life!", ABBA sighed, but nobody (not even seventeen-year-olds, if they really think about it) wants seventeen to be the time of your life. Youth is insignificant to the same extent that it is untroubled, and if our life-expectancies are to be anything better than ironic, the hard and meaningful parts must mostly come later, once you start to take control of your challenges as well as your responses. Given a culture fixated on how Britney Spears looks in cut-offs, though, it shouldn't be too surprising that we don't, collectively, know how to grow up very well. "When did dress-up turn to fashion?", Dar wonders. We misidentify the energies that drove us before we became self-conscious, and our attempts at maturity are usually botched as a result. Not only are we ill prepared for adulthood, ourselves, but we provide poor audiences for each other. ABBA's glowing seventeen-year-old is playing to whoever cares to watch, but grow up and you'll find that many of your most important decisions have no audience (or none but God, in this case, but that's saying more or less the same thing). The secular translation of Dar's "Let it take you apart / To the elements of praying" is something like "Learn to listen to yourself". And if, when you listen to yourself, you hear the faint strains of old ABBA songs, hopefully that means your youth won't turn out to have been completely irrelevant after all.
The breakthrough I will claim for this album, appropriately, is that Dar has finally found a way to, at least temporarily, understand having grown up. You're only likely to agree with me, naturally, if you agree about how Dar's earlier albums are unresolved. To me, The Honesty Room, Mortal City and End of the Summer all confront the tension between written poetry and pop melody indecisively, and with mixed success. Each album has a few becalmed folk songs that barely rise above ambience ("Mortal City" perhaps most definitively), a few songs that could be bubbly novelty hits if they didn't suddenly turn harrowing (the incomprehensible injunction at the end of "The Babysitter's Here", the father deciding to call his brother towards the end of "The Christians and the Pagans"), and a few in which she finds a truce between not taking herself too seriously and not taking herself seriously enough ("As Cool As I Am" was my favorite song of 1996, and I remember why every time I play it). The Green World is her first album that doesn't sound to me like the act of recording was in a way a compromise, artificially arresting a process that wanted to continue in motion. It shares many of the other albums' virtues, and retains a few of their idiosyncrasies as well, but it is both musically and lyrically coherent, which in my opinion the others are not, and while incoherence can be a productive force of its own, and I concede that maturity is frequently confused with ossification, you have to be able to pause, every once in a while, and let some potential be realized, else you're just guessing wildly about what you should change next. This is particularly relevant if you're going to fix your current worldview in a persistent piece of art, like an album, because the album is a permanent, static record of an underlying transient state, and if you don't adapt the content to the form you run the risk of getting Muybridge when you wanted Vermeer.
For all I know Dar flips, daily, between wishing she'd made this album in a barn with a single acoustic guitar and kicking herself for not having the guts to call Bob Rock, but the record itself manages to banish any doubts. "And a God Descended" rises from muted, gauzy verses to tense, stirring choruses. "After All" mixes an easy country rustle with humming keyboards and evasive, pattering percussion. "What Do You Love More Than Love" has enough twang to spin off into silliness, but Dar's controlled melody reigns it in the same way the chirpy cadences of "The Christians and the Pagans", "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts" and "The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-ed" don't. "Spring Street" opens with what I could swear is the first note of Marillion's "Cover My Eyes" (although surely it makes no sense to attribute ownership to single notes), but ends up evoking, for me, referents as varied as the drums in Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", the arching falsettos in Paula Cole's "Bethlehem", Richard Buckner's twitchy guitar and traces of Daniel Lanois' textures from The Joshua Tree and Wrecking Ball. "We Learned the Sea" could easily have been as stark and narrative as "The Ocean" and "The End of the Summer", but Billy Masters' mournful guitar is a touch I presume Dar learned from hanging out with Richard Shindell so much, and the expansive accordion and strings seem to be searching for a half-remembered folk-melody. "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono" has still more of the ingredients of a pop trifle than "What Do You Love More Than Love", but again Dar sings the pivotal lines like she intends something specific and seditious by them, and a song that inverts the usual John-and-Yoko critique by wondering whether John was a drag on Yoko is probably going to engage and/or infuriate enough people to keep it from worming its way into as many cheerful subconsciousnesses as "Mickey" or "Macarena". Dar's own version of "Calling the Moon" sounds more like Richard Buckner than Richard Shindell's cover of it on Somewhere Near Paterson. "I Had No Right" reads like Bruce Cockburn, but Dar sings it with the earnest and faintly didactic assurance of Joan Baez covering Dylan, or Sloan Wainwright doing Phil Ochs. "It Happens Every Day" is the sparest of these songs, but even it has choruses that swirl into smoky, Laura Nyro-esque tendrils. And "Another Mystery", the loping finale, is part nursery-rhyme, part Jewel sultriness, part bluegrass stomp. Dar gets the album's sole songwriting credit, but her backing band, including Hyman, Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby, veteran country guitarist Steuart Smith and well-traveled drummer Steve Holley, are constant supportive presences, and Stewart Lerman produces her just like she's Jules Shear, Darden Smith or the Roches, helping her get from tentative to composed by taking things out of her way, rather than (like Mitchell Froom messing with Suzanne Vega, for example) trying to process her into somebody else. The result isn't rock, pop or folk, completely, but perhaps a return to what Adult Alternative was starting to mean before Dave Matthews and Sheryl Crow hijacked it, a new chapter in the oft-interrupted story of how the legacies of Joan Armatrading, Tanita Tikaram, Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman survive, in therapeutic isolation, waiting patiently for rap-metal and boy/girl-groups to annihilate each other.
The real reason I fixated on the opening notes of "Dancing Queen", though, has much less to do with genres, legacies or maturity than it does with pure, debilitating, uncritical anticipation. "Dancing Queen" is embedded deep enough in my schema-parsing cortex that when I hear those notes my whole body switches into "Yes, it's starting" mode. It's the same prickly sensation I feel during the martial strains of the Twentieth Century Fox theme (which I first heard before, and so forever associate with, Star Wars), or as W. G. Snuffy Walden's guitar plays over the title sequence for My So-Called Life. It is an unfamiliar effect to get from a Dar Williams album, as traditionally her albums have grown on me very slowly, but after I factor out ABBA I find that the anticipation remains. In the three years since End of the Summer I have, without really noticing, invested a frightening amount of my emotional energy in Dar's self-awareness, self-image and storytelling. I have done this with several other artists, for various reasons, but none of their appeals apply, exactly, to Dar. I don't imagine that she's an alternate-history version of myself (like I do with Scott Miller), I don't think of her as a pure, detached storyteller (as with Richard Shindell) nor a fearless confessionalist (like Alanis Morissette), I am not awed (as by Tori Amos), and I don't harbor romantic delusions (as for Juliana Hatfield). I've become firmly convinced that her struggles matter to me, despite the fact that at least two of her primary strategies (therapy and pantheism) don't appeal to me at all. "And a God Descended" is, the precedent of "God" in the title and Rob Hyman playing notwithstanding, not even as mildly heretical as Joan Osborne's "One of Us". It's apocalyptic and frankly penitent. "His light was lifted just above the law, / And now we have to live with what we did, / With what we saw." I don't think Dar means this metaphorically, which would ordinarily bother me, but this time I stop and wonder whether it's worth accepting religion if it brings accountability. "After All" resorts to "It's better to have fallen in love / Than to never have fallen at all", a cliché I ought to bristle at, but I let it go because I'm still marveling at "I am the daughter of a great romance, / And they are the children of the war", and all that implies about the oscillations, both within and between lives, of hardship and redemption. "Spring Street" is a New York song, and I hate New York, and I'd had enough of anthropomorphizing April by the time Simon and Garfunkel got done with it, but "And I can't believe what they're saying, / They're saying I could leave tonight" turns the song into a meditation on how much more afraid we allow ourselves to become of our own power than we are of any other constraints. "I Had No Right" is a detailed tribute to war protester Philip Berrigan, but the image I retain is "It's all of us versus all that paper", which I extend to cover all the ways in which our culture bypasses human responsibility by counterposing people against processes and things. Most of "It Happens Every Day" is an adult's litany of sympathetic observations of young people, but the implication of "The first part of every day for me is good", the first line, is finally addressed in the last, "And every day will happen without you", and suddenly mortality hangs over everything in between. "Another Mystery" could be Dar's rejoinder to Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" (although Sarah's song was already ambivalent, I thought, so maybe not).
But if Dar Williams never gets her chance to be famous, if the industry's ranks close before she can pass, I suspect I will always wonder whether "What Do You Love More Than Love" and "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono" aren't why. They are traps, perversely appealing songs calculated to incur wrath. "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono" is obviously blasphemous, questioning the established iconography of John and Yoko ("I wonder if Yoko Ono ever thought of staying solo, / If she thought of other men and if she doubted John Lennon, / Worrying that he'd distract her art."), but that's a minor transgression compared to "What Do You Love More Than Love", which doubts desire. Desire can't be doubted. The fabric of civilization depends on it. Without acquisitiveness, competitiveness, lust, sublimation, rejection, fear of rejection, fear of lust and infidelity, the Western economy (and "economy" has become synonymous with "culture") would shut down. There isn't (and admittedly this is sort of tautological) an entrenched interest in the hemisphere that doesn't rely on endemic unevolved dissatisfaction. If our weaknesses weren't so profitable, would we be better creatures by now? If we stopped being essentially motivated by desire, what leverage could anybody use to sell us soda, or cars, or walls between each other, or each other? Serenity is the enemy of progress, and we've forgotten how to question progress, so serenity must be dissolute. I'm poorly qualified to criticize, myself, surrounded here by piles of CDs, and you'll notice that Dar's affinity for Buddhism doesn't prevent her from making a record with undisguised commercial aspirations, but if we appear to have implicitly taken a side, that doesn't mean we don't still think the issue is vitally important. We gravitate to the foci of our misgivings because those must be the places where the distinctions between good and evil are made. And so we stand here, precisely where we believe we can help save souls or damn them, and hope desperately that we're right about which is which.