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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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