Dar Williams’ most recent studio record, 2015’s luminous folk/rocker Emerald, kicks off with a song that is straight-up life coach. In “Something to Get Through,” the singer addresses a friend who is in a low patch and can’t see their way out. The song amounts to a hyperarticulate, philosophically thoughtful, keep-your-chin-up locker-room pep talk for depressed and depleted adults like me. I generally wince at the didactic mode wherever I find it, and the mentor roleplay is one of my least favorite rhetorical strategies in songwriting; but, as usual, Dar Williams just wins with it.
The bright-tempo song spins its shapely melodies through a series of fresh and unpredictable Beatleesque and Tin Pan Alley chord changes. The vocal harmonies blossom as the gently delivered theme of “Get over it” opens, and eventually, even its message starts to reach me. I have been life-coached, and I actually feel a little better. The takeaway for me, I guess, is that henceforth only Dar Williams is allowed to write mentor songs, and the rest of you should just focus on the specific things you see on the ground at the bus depot.
It’s the all-in-for-now spirit of that song that tells you what you need to know about Dar Williams. She’s a serial monogamist of a songwriter, committed entirely to the mode and meaning of the current song, for the duration of the current song. Let’s say, for example, that Milgram’s electric-shock ethics test, from the point of a view of a paid participant (who will end up looking like a sheepish collaborator in evil, but who has bills to pay, you know), has caught her imagination. Out comes an acutely realized, impossibly subtle pop gem, “Buzzer,” a song infinitely more nuanced and meaningful than Peter Gabriel’s abstract treatment of the same subject, “We Do What We’re Told.” Maybe Dar herself is also skeptical of mentorship songs, who knows? What we do know is that when she takes one on, she is going to see it all the way through to its bottom and use every tool in her deep, deep drawer. She is going to clean her plate. And then move on.
Over more than 20 years and nearly a dozen studio albums, Dar Williams has distinguished herself as a wildly resourceful, risk-taking though generally traditional writer who, in a way that is starkly contrary to the smart-person aesthetics of her era(s), is truly unafraid of meaning and making it. Her career has moved from a modern, literate and Eastern Seaboard folk thing toward a modern, literate, organic and adult smart-pop. Through both the microscope of song analysis and through the macroscope of career arc, this woman’s achievement warrants the term “major.”
Unison Arts of New Paltz keeps the hot streak going, presenting Dar Williams at SUNY-New Paltz’s Studley Theater on Friday, April 12. Ticket prices range from $20 to $30.
Friday, April 12, 8 p.m., $20-30, Julien J. Studley Theatre, Old Main Building, SUNY-New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org.