A devoted fan who had taken 10 or so years off from listening to Dar Williams would probably be disappointed by her newest album. Whereas Williams’s excellent first two releases, “The Honesty Room” (1993) and “Mortal City” (1996), offered compelling collections of funny, poignant, girl-with-her-guitar, lyrically driven songs, “Promised Land,” like her other recent albums, is more poppy, more produced and less energetic.
But the claim that “the older stuff is better,” besides being as clichéd as possible, is always necessarily biased by the speaker’s fond memories of “discovering” the artist. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in missing old habits that one fails to notice what an artist has gained and maintained over time — and though Williams may be missing a little of her youthful spunkiness, “Promised Land” deserves praise for its older, wiser reinterpretations of some of her time-tested songwriting assets.
Williams has always liked to venture off the beaten folk path, eschewing worn-out topics and opting instead to write about everything from insurance fraud to the benefits of psychoanalysis. After 15 years, Williams still delivers in this regard — the most exciting track on the album is “Buzzer,” a driving ballad sung from the perspective of a participant in a psychological study that evokes the infamous Milgram experiments. Not only is it both catchy and melodically innovative, but it somehow succeeds as a sympathetic, non-preachy portrayal of a complicated ethical question in just a few simple rhymes.
Yet “Promised Land,” with its heavier production, is less lyrically driven than some of her earlier albums. That means Williams loses some of her charming singer-songwriter vibe, which is unfortunate; on the other hand, she gains the ability to sing about a complex topic like the banality of evil without beating her listeners over the head with it.
The album’s lighter focus on lyrics also hides one of the most irritating elements of Williams’s songwriting. As it turns out, she’s still as starry-eyed as ever, which could be considered an amazing triumph of youthful idealism but is actually an annoying example of all that is awful about folk music. For example, an otherwise enjoyable track called “Go to the Woods,” with a twangily upbeat tune and backup vocals by Suzanne Vega, includes unforgivably Woodstock lines such as, “Out in the storybook land are many leagues of the wild / Wise and uncontainable as a windy-haired child.” While it’s almost comforting to find the same reasons to roll one’s eyes at Williams even after all these years, mostly it’s just embarrassing.
Fortunately, Williams’s enthusiasm has positive consequences too, as she continues to possess the guts and the skill necessary to pull off beautiful covers of unexpected tracks. She rocked out (acoustically) on The Kinks’ classic “Better Things” on her 1997 album “End of the Summer,” and on “Promised Land” she ventures even farther afield with a soulful interpretation of “Midnight Radio” from the alternative rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” whose composer Stephen Trask was her classmate at Wesleyan.
But most of all, Williams continues to produce compellingly introspective tracks, something her fans have loved her for since she gently tackled her own childhood gender issues on “The Honesty Room’s” first track, “When I Was a Boy.” In a song called “The Easy Way,” Williams addresses the toughness she demanded of herself in past relationships, coming to the conclusion that she deserves a change. This kind of lyrical self-analysis has always been one of Williams’s most formidable talents, and it’s one that, unsurprisingly, seems to have grown as Williams has matured. Her songs may be a little less edgy and a little more radio-ready, but her work’s intelligent, insightful core is present on “Promised Land” in full force.