Dar Williams will release her sixth album, My Better Self, on September 13th, with her wry sense of humor and knack for narratives very much intact. The record also finds the singer-songwriter weighing in on current affairs and pushing her full-band sound into new sonic territory, embracing the blues and even covering Pink Floyd.
"You take a temperature-reading of your time, and in this case I pulled out the rectal thermometer, and here we are," says a characteristically chatty -- and ribald -- Williams, laughing. "Actually, the covers that I did are more reflective of the political climate."
These covers include renditions of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," with its accordion-and-keyboard-flecked melody and guest vocals by Marshall Crenshaw, and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," recently disco-fied by the splashy Scissor Sisters. Williams strips the song of its orchestral bombast and gains an eerie intimacy, thanks to vocals by Ani DiFranco.
"Back in the Sixties and the Seventies there was this interesting synthesis of these guys who did some really deep rock stuff in combination with trying to make poetry and look at their feminine sides," says Williams. "I just thought that by doing it to the best of my ability -- which is through my voice and my interpretation -- and taking the guitar out of it, you get to see the song's deeply feminine side. I don't mean to overly identify what is feminine and masculine, but for a woman to do it in this focused soprano makes it a very different song. And Ani DiFranco -- what she did was beyond what I actually expected: It's a song about being disembodied, and she added a disembodied harmony."
As for the Williams' originals, songs like "Empire" offer incisive, critical statements about the country's social climate: "We like strong, happy people/Who don't think there's something wrong with pride/Work makes them free/And we spread that freedom far and wide." The satirical yet affectionate "Teen for God" paints a picture of teenage girls' rapturous response to evangelical Christianity. "When [the song's protagonist] says 'swimming with the Spirit' -- that is the kind of thing where you go to summer camp and they're like, 'we are eating with the Spirit, drinking with the Spirit, swimming with the Spirit' -- the purity of that is what makes it so resonant and also so funny," Williams says.
Though Williams consistently supplies warmth and wit in her music, on My Better Self she also expands her musical agenda, working with her touring band to tackle more expansive arrangements. "Two Sides of a River," with guest musicians Soulive, features a slow-burning, organ-fueled melody -- it's as close to a blues song as she has ever written. "I played the beginning of 'Two Sides of a River' for Julie Wolf, the keyboard player, and instead of 'That's weird,' she said, 'Oh, you've gotta do that,'" she says. "I lucked out that she was the first person I [shared it with]. It's like confessing that you've found a weird sore -- a strangely private moment. And it's so fragile, a person can just snuff it out."
One of the overarching themes of My Better Self is the drive for self-improvement, a personal journey augmented recently by the birth of Williams' son, documented in the song "So Close to My Heart." "When I became a mother the specific thing was to capture what it was like to be pregnant and feel this sense of, 'Oh, my God, I've no desire to be creative. Am I just going to become Diaper Dar and never write another song?'" Williams recalls. "But as soon as he was born, I had this hormonal shift. Like I was a teenager who wanted to sit on her bed and write songs all day. Once he was out, it all changed."
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