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Sat, 18 Oct 2008

"If I Wrote You"

In the summer of 2000, a girl(friend) wrote me this in a letter after we had nearly spent as long away from each other as we had known each other (at least, known each other well):

If I wrote you,
You would know me,
And you would not write me again.

Okay, so "as long as we had known each other (well)" was about two weeks. She was quoting (and told me as much) "If I Wrote You," which you can listen to and whose lyrics you can read.

The song is an expression of fear. That was clear from the bit of it I had received, so it took me by surprise. The conditional on "You would know me" hints that the recipient of the letter doesn't know the author well right now.

So I started to write back about the trees and the snow,
And I saw a bird, couldn't say what it was.
But I thought you'd know,
You always surprised me.

Right at the start, Dar does a perfect job of setting a scene outside my home window in upstate New York (Rochester). As it happens, that's where Molly's letter was sent to find me, and where she would return after another week or two. But right through the scenery we see a reflective, impressed letter writer, fearing that she is not worthy of the recipient's attention.

After she got back, she would introduce me to Dar Williams, lending me a few CDs here and there. I have her to thank for a lot of things, including tuning me into Dar.

But in this song, it's interesting that Dar sings solo (sometimes harmonized against herself) except in every chorus, where a male voice joins her in harmony. Instead of harmony, it sounds more like a distant voice whispering in her ear, the voice of someone now unreachable.

The second verse, line by line, alternates the imagery of nature with obscure but personal imagery. It gives the song a sense of seriousness. The flooding of the recipient's stories into the writer, and the idea that the recipient knows this:

The truth was the only way out, but not the only way

speaks to a sort of dark seriousness. There is a way to get out of a mess, but everyone knows that success is not the only choice.

The third verse beings with a sense of irreverance:

We drew our arms around the bastard sons,
We never would drink to the chosen ones.

As the verse continues, I don't know how she left, or what she left. She's "steady now," but I don't know what sort of solace this gives her. Musically, the feeling the song gives me is the same throughout: distant and sad. The song is typical of Dar's work from the period: it sounds full, and no shortage of words. The song concludes with a sad certainty:

You will not write me again.

If the conditional at the start, "You would not," indicates uncertainty, this last form indicates a sad finality.

There's a theme in some of the other songs I've chosen, which is of women being strong to stand up to men who deserve it. Here, we see quite the opposite. The writer has certainty in love, unlike elsewhere where grating men destroy the protagonist's wonderful feelings. The doubt comes from a respect for the love's target as it mixes dangerously with her own insecurity; it yields an empty, unsatisfied longing.

So, hi. I guess it's particularly fitting that I'm using this song in a Dar Williams A Day, since I haven't heard back from you. But I've thought before that I wouldn't hear from you again, and I've been wrong about that before.

So I look forward to you writing me again.

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Thu, 16 Oct 2008

"As Cool As I Am"

I think this song is my favorite Dar Williams song. You should really give it a listen and read the lyrics. So much for this being a daily serial! But hopefully I'll get back on track for these last few days.

The song begins with a forceful rhythm from what sounds like a didgeridoo. "Yeah, there was a time," the voice begins seamlessly. We see her dating some, well, some jerk. She "was no sister then" - she did not stand up to support women in general.

You point, you have a word for every woman you can lay your eyes on
Like you own them, just because you bought the time
And you turn to me:

The music swells at "like you own them" and then stops. Without a background, Dar emphasizes:

You say you hope I'm not threatened.

"Bought the time"? Maybe they are at a strip club. But now they're at a more normal venue: "we're at a club":

You watch the woman dancing--she is drunk,
She is smiling, and she's falling in a slow descending funk.

Dar judges: "She is drunk." She is smiling, but she is not really in control of herself. At the end of the first verse, Dar's date makes his point. Like last time, his point is something worth rolling one's eyes at. This time, Dar manages to respond:

You play the artist, saying, "Is it how she moves, or how she looks?"
I say, it's loneliness, suspended to our own like grappling hooks,
And as long as she's got noise, she's fine.

We can see her judgment of the woman in her response here. Her remark that the woman's loneliness is "suspended to our own [loneliness]" indicates that the judgement is not meant as harsh, as we are not to be spared. Dar offers to help the woman learn to dance afterwards. Is this sarcastic? I think instead it is a sincere offer to teach something other than loneliness. Dar exposes herself herself by attacking the pseudo-intellectual question asked by her date.

The chorus changes slightly through the course of the song. Throughout, she declares, "I will not be afraid of women." Toward the start of the song, we might imagine she means, "I am not afraid;" her utter lack of discomfort explains her not replying. From the first chorus to the second, the first changes, emphasizing how she does not see the other women as people to compete against.

She recognizes the self-doubt her partner has been trying to trick her into feeling. Emotional trust comes from tenderness, sharing moments and feelings that aren't shown to everyone. This closeness seems missing to her: "I thought you knew how to be scared." Instead, our antagonist is always sure of himself, never risking his own feelings; rather, always risking Dar's. In a declaration of strength:

But truth is just like time, it catches up and it just keeps going,
And so I'm leaving.

"You can find out how much better things can get," she sneers. She is vulnerable: "I feel a little worse than I did when we met." We don't know if this is because his tricks have worked a little or just because of the usual feelings of loss. Dar sneaks in a breath just before, "And then I go outside to join the others." I hear a smile, maybe half of a laugh at her own joke, in that "And." She is "the others," because there is no one left beside this partner inside.

"Oh, and that's not easy," is the final variant of the chorus lead. At the end, "I will not be afraid of women" is a declaration that she has had enough of this (presumably) man trying to tickle her insecurity. What I love about this song is the combination Dar's expression of vulnerability and her ability to draw strength to take the risk of ending the abuse. It's not just a tale of warning; it's an honest telling that heeding this warning may hurt.

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"The Babysitter's Here"

This song is on the first Dar Williams album, The Honesty Room, from 1993. You can give it a listen and read the lyrics.

The song is a gorgeous mix of violins and Dar doing her best to sound even cuter than usual. Our narrator, the child, is happy, sweet, and naive. You can see that as soon as the first verse:

I don't understand and she tries to explain,
How a spaceship is riding through somebody's brain,
And there's blood and guts and...

...and she trails off. There's no point for our narrator to try to understand anything deeper; it just doesn't work, so she talks about what makes her happy. The babysitter!

She's the best one we've ever had.

The chorus explains what makes her so great: she does things her own way. "She sits on her hair!" "She pierced her own ear!" (Something which, upon reflection, probably hurt.) At this point, who would not swoon? "She's tall as my dad" - I suppose she never quite fit in that way. But our narrator loves her for it.

The violins swell as our babysitter is the star. The narrator is adorable - overwhelmed! "And she's oh! oh! oh!" You can imagine her trembling with anticipation: "I can't wait to give her the card!" she repeats. "She's the best one!" is all our narrator can say until she composes herself to explain in the simplest logic. Finally, she concludes:

So that means that the star was...
My babysitter.

Something's not right. Tom is introduced by the narrator as "the king of romance," and she (the narrator) sighs, "Someday I'll have a boyfriend just like that." But if we look at his words:

And will they get married with kids of their own?
He says, "Not if she's going to college we won't."

This confinement of the babysitter is invisible to the innocent narrator, but not to the babysitter, and that conflict is what makes the song powerful. Listening, I picked up on this and found sympathy for the babysitter especially because the narrator can't. (I see a similar contrast between children's naivete and the pressures of adult decision in "The Kid's Song" by Moxy Fruvous. But that song is co-narrated by adults and children; in this one, we don't see any direct voice of the grown-ups in conflict. This story is told through the magical happy eyes of the child, making the babysitter's conflict look incomprehensible and unfair.)

The actions of the babysitter with "the king of romance" make her seem voiceless. There's the above conversation, and:

And she got mad at dinner when Tom drank a beer.

Tom's the one making choices here; all the babysitter can do is get angry, not alter Tom's behavior.

I want to highlight a theme through Dar's work: The chorus changes to show a progression of feeling. The last line of this chrous is phrased three different ways in the three repetitions. The first time we see the babysitter, it is strictly joyful.

And it's peace, man, cool, yeah, the babysitter's here...

After Tom drinks his beer, it seems to me Tom replies to her anger, trying to calm her down. I especially get that feeling from the "hey," as if it's short for, "Hey, don't act up in front of the kids you're babysitting," or "Stay cool, okay?". It further squelches our poor babysitter's self-expression.

But peace, man, cool, hey, the babysitter's here...

Iit's only natural that the violins swell for our hero, the babysitter, when she shows herself as the beautiful and unique unicorn. She is choosing for herself, and the music celebrates appropriately. In "As Cool As I Am," you saw men who put women in situations that strain their feelings. Dar likes to see them turn out with agency for the woman, even at the cost of tears.

So by the ending, our poor naive narrator misunderstands:

I don't understand and she tries to explain,
And all that mascara runs down in her pain,
'Cause she's leaving me...

The babysitter is leaving the narrator to go to college, having chosen it over Tom. "Don't go with a guy who would make you choose," she (the babysitter) warned. Trying to explain, her eyes brimming, the babysitter struggles for sympathy from the narrator who won't understand the choice she had to make. So she points out she has to leave the narrator.

In the final version of the chorus, the narrator tries to calm the babysitter. Two or three words at a time, with pauses between, the narrator tries to soothe the girl with tears streaming.

So hush now,
peace, man,
the babysitter's here.

In "As Cool As I Am" and "The Babysitter's Here," I see self-driven girls making the right decision, choosing themselves over their chauvinistic boyfriends. When I chose today's song, it didn't occur to me how similar the songs were. I think it shows what I love about Dar Williams.

On that note, I'll link to another song I like, this time with no explanation. Enjoy Kathleen Edwards' "In State" and read the lyrics.

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Fri, 10 Oct 2008

"The World's Not Falling Apart"

The album begins with the gentle, creeping synth of "Mercy of the Fallen" that grows into bass guitar flourishes and rhythmic confidence atypical for Dar Williams. All over, this album is decorated with special guests. It's a great way to start an album, that's for sure.

The album is The Beauty of the Rain from 2003, a much sadder-sounding title than that opening track. Don't worry; the song that shares that title is deservedly slow and pensive (and beautiful). If you look through a Dar Williams discography, you'll learn a few things: I only have half her albums, and also that this album is a reappearance of Dar after a three-year hiatus from studio publications.

Recoveries like that are interesting; one can learn a lot about oneself in three years. It's a cliché to suggest live albums (like Out There Live (2001)) represent a pause in the creative career of a musician; more interesting is the question of what Dar would see after three years of looking back and recreating her earlier work.

So when I say the album begins with gentle, creeping synth, and that it's "atypical," it really is the new Dar Williams. It's no wonder that the second track is titled "Farewell To The Old Me." I'm really happy to say that I love this album, and I'll point you to track five on it: "The World's Not Falling Apart", to which you can listen or read the lyrics.

Truth be told, I think I like the sound of first song on this album more, so I'll slip it in here. Musically speaking, the harmonies in its chorus and the instrumentation are irresistible. But I chose "Not Falling Apart" because for the year 2005-2006, this song was very helpful for me. Putting that first song together with this fifth makes for a powerful combination.

There's a contrast to be considered between the sudden recognition of responsibility in "Buzzer" and a song with a title like this one's. To be brief, the song (you should have listened to it by now!) is about acceptance. Take this couplet, delivered without fear:

The closest thing to God that I have heard
Is when I knew I did not have the final word

The year I mentioned was my senior year of college as well as the year I stopped being a teenager. "It's not an end, it's just a start," I could have consoled myself.

But the scene that really wins me over is a verse I can't resist quoting in full:

I have watched the kids who make their scenes,
I have met the riot grrls who print their 'zines.
They write the word, they raise a thought.
They say who they are, they try what they’re not,
'Cause life is such a changing art, life is such a changing art.

I must give justice to Dar and highlight the beautiful singing all across this song; it's wonderful when she supports the chorus, but for me it's prettiest when she sings the above verse. I used to hear that "they race apart," which I'm consoled to see isn't what she sings.

"They try what they're not" happens to strike a chord in me. It's reassuring to imagine having this certainty in who they are while they see what else they could be. "Life is such a changing art." I struggle with the interplay between causing those changes oneself and the idea that I have some consistent identity. Typically I feel lost and doubtful for a few months, trying new events and people and situations, and I wonder why nothing feels all that great. Then something happens that reminds me of things and people I truly love. The crux of it is that I forget how much I love some things, and the process of searching becomes mired with an inability to say which new thing is better than the other. These wonderful things appear, and as if I feel frayed or rubbed thin, they feel restorative.

Every once in a while those wonderful things are new places or interactions with new people, and then I am really grateful in this life. (Like you.)

There surely are people that are pulling the world apart. Dar Williams knows that she is respectful and playful. Even if she can't save everyone's everything everywhere, she espouses awareness and acceptance. I think she's highlighting something I believe in, too: do better, first, and only later try to be perfect. I've long believed in that, but I haven't always lived it. She can take solace in her relative and absolute goodness, even if it has limits.

There are a couple of lines I don't really like: the third of the first verse, and the last of the last one. But I'll take them.

The new Dar Williams sound does seem to have longer, fluffier songs. It's also less sad. Perhaps the special guests are here to help Dar regain confidence. At more than four minutes long, "The World's Not Falling Apart" is not afraid to lean on its chorus. "And that's okay."

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Thu, 09 Oct 2008


"Buzzer" is my favorite song on the new album, Promised Land. You can give it a listen as you read the lyrics.

(When searching for lyrics for it, I ran into a site with this ad: "How do you know if this pill goes with that pill?" My sentiments exactly.)

The song starts with percussion and a tapping beat that continues up until the first mention of the buzzer. You'll hear it through all the verses. During the verses, there are two notes between which she alternates to create a feeling of dissonance. If you compare this song to yesterday's, you'll feel the song is less "full" - there are fewer different frequencies being sent to you. The chorus serves to resolve a lot of this musically, smoothing these things out in two parts: "I would press the buzzer" removes the tapping beat, and the image of driving home adds some much-needed change across the board.

Dar's website explains that the song is about the famous social psychology experiment(s) by Stanley Milgram. Milgram summarizes them, "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

Dar calls it, "A subject I have been obsessed with since reading about it when I was 18."

We start with a scene of self-contented loneliness, even detachment from a relationship with the outside world. She can have "anything I want" "cheaper than the stuff I make myself." We see her go through the Milgram experiment, something I won't repeat because it stands on its own. The process concludes, "Here's your seventy bucks, now everything's changed." She asks us to consider the everyday cruelty we could contribute to; as the buzzer masked her character from feeling responsible for it, so might things like the market shield her in her current life of shoes and stocks.

I've complained to my friend Jonathan about social psychology experiments, in particular harping on the idea that these aren't "experiments." (As far as I know, there's no control group to see if people would push the buzzer without the force of authority.) The way I put it to him was, "Breaking news: people aren't rational!" Growing up in the 1990s, that somehow seemed pretty evident to me (and of course I include myself in that list of irrational people). The value of these social psychology experiments, "just like a game," is in highlighting that fact and by drawing attention to specific manifestations of our non-rational decision processes.

Like last time, in this song Dar learns something about herself. That's probably also something you'll see in the songs I like of hers; on the hand, it may be true of most of her songs. There a simplicity in this song compared to her earlier work. Last time, when there were hidden words of support: "Good, okay," here there seems to be nothing beneath the surface. You could see this as emblematic of a change in Dar's work, something like changing from a world-gazing, secret-keeping child into a grown-up with concerns and interests.

That's alright, it's okay.

P.S. I know I've been remiss on the scheduling. I'll work on that.

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Tue, 07 Oct 2008

"What Do You Hear In These Sounds?"

This song is on the first Dar Williams album I owned, The End of The Summer (1997). You can listen to the song or read the lyrics; I suggest you do both!

The chorus (and title) is a question asked by a therapist to the main character, who (as a rule in my listening to Dar Williams) I imagine to be Dar herself. The music starts with intensity and rhythm (read: certainty) that it maintains throughout. It supports, through contrast, the uncertain protagonist. The song begins with rhymes like this:

And we fathom all the mysteries, explicit and inherent;
When I hit a rut, she says to try the other parent.

I like the combination of Latin-derived words in the first line with a throwaway line about stereotypes of therapy. Of the therapist herself, we're told:

And she wants to tell me something,
but she knows that it's much better if I get for myself.

"Myself" has a twinge of cuteness that appears in what is mostly a serious song. You'll hear it again toward the end in how she says she would be "scared."

I heard this song at a time in my life when I was wondering about therapy. Dar begins with a half-apology:

I don't go to therapy to find out if I'm a freak,

but that's not what bothered me about it. Therapy struck me as just another friend, but for pay. We urban folk who claim to need this stuff are all pretty similar, and if so many of us need to pay for friends, it struck me as indicative of a general problem. Doesn't the presence of this mean that probably I need it too?

That bothered me. I'd rather believe I, and everyone else, can solve our respective problems by just talking to people normally. I suppose on reflection I certainly do believe there are exceptional circumstances and exceptional helpers. At first, she doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. Like a teenager testing if a parent is listening, she rambles on. We get this little argument between the therapist and Dar:

And she says "Oh." I say, "What?" she says, "Exactly,"

Decisively, in three words punctuated by a voiceless stop, we see the therapist insisting Dar understand her own life.

She says, "Look"

After this verse, after its chorus, we hear Dar's melodic voice sing a line of ahs, but underneath we overhear one side of a soft-spoken conversation. To me parts sounds like:

(I'd love help deciphering the rest of the rest of these. Now that I've heard them, I can't focus on the ahs anymore.)

As I turned from a teenager to twenty, I remember saying to myself, twisting a line from this song:

But oh how I loved everybody else,
When I finally had so little to say about myself!

"What do you hear in these sounds?" is a question about what she hears in all her talking at these therapy sessions. Eventually, she comes to respect the events of her own life, even if they're "stories that nobody hears." Her mood changes in the last verse changes from self-doubt to realizing that everyone else has the same worries, "just like me." In this verse, she thinks about herself as she "wake[s] up" — the revelation came not at therapy, on schedule, but one morning by herself.

This transition from concerned, perhaps painfully self-aware, to consoled and confident is typical of my favorite Dar Williams songs. As she concludes half a minute before the end of the song, "That's what I hear in these sounds," pay attention to her carefree rendition of that last word. A line of oohs rise to support her, and until the end we hear a chorus of harmonies.

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Dar Williams a Day

Here begins Dar Williams A Day. What do you do when there's a concert put on by someone whose music you love, and you want to bring someone else who doesn't love it yet?

What I'll do is share it along with why I love it.

Like last time, I'm sure I'll get off to a rocky start. I hope things smooth out quickly!

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