Dar Williams has written some great songs, and recorded some fine albums. I’m particularly partial to her bittersweet “When I Was a Boy” (download) in particular, and still listen to 2000’s The Green World. But for one reason or another, I haven’t enjoyed her last few albums as much as her earlier stuff, and My Better Self is no different.
Matter of fact, I sort of hate this album, and I’m not sure why. It’s been a very long time since I had such a strong reaction to music so completely innocuous, and it seems a little absurd, but there you have it. You know, it’s kind of like that kid in school you couldn’t help yourself from picking on — you really weren’t sure what it was that made him such an appealing target, and sometimes you even swore to stop knocking him around, but it never quite worked out that way.
Here’s the problem, I think: Dar Williams, though a talented songwriter with no shortage of fresh perspectives, has always suffered from a surplus of the same unflinching, overbearing earnestness that typifies (and ultimately sinks) a lot of other modern folkies. For some reason, this isn’t so hard to take when it’s accompanied by raw, bare-bones production — you know, the way folk music is supposed to sound — but Williams has been edging steadily toward crossover territory for quite awhile now, and the combination of ordinary pop gloss with the doe-eyed platitudes of your standard coffeehouse busker can be pretty unappealing.
And look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with folk artists crossing over to pop. Plenty of them have done it, and done it well. It’s just that, in this case, I think Williams’ drift either exposes a lack of emotional honesty or approximates one. I’m not sure which, and it doesn’t really matter: Either way, most of Better Self runs the small gamut between dull granola anthems like “Empire” (download) and ponderous, sleepy ballads like “Blue Light of the Flame” (download). The most interesting track — her duet with Ani DiFranco on a cover of “Comfortably Numb” (download) — is also the most eye-poppingly misguided.
I’m sure Williams has more than a few moments of brilliance left in her, but unless your taste in contemporary folk runs to the blandest of the bland — or you were that kid everyone picked on — take a pass on this.