Eulogize This: The Honesty Room & Mortal City by Dar Williams

‘A special kind of hearing’

I won’t forget when Peter Pan / came to my house, took my hand / I said I was a boy / I’m glad he didn’t check…

That’s the opening line to The Honesty Room, the 1993 debut album by Dar Williams, which I was recommended by a friend when I was at university. I don’t think my friend was expecting me to like the double-album (her debut packaged with its follow-up, Mortal City) that she had lent me, but three songs into it the songwriting had sufficiently blown me away to make me decide to go to the shop and buy it the next day.

My pitch for this Eulogize This is a little tricky, so I’m going to choose my words carefully. There are a lot of singer-songwriters who are famous and have international careers, but of whom you could say, if you honestly imagined they’d never made it, that “Yeah, they don’t have what it takes to really make it.” Because, despite their success and their obvious support from the industry, their songs are generally not that much better than the kind of thing that you hear at open mic nights all over the world. (And that may sound catty coming from a musician like me, but there are plenty of recording artists I like even though their own songwriting is not amazing.)

But Dar Williams is the reverse. If you’re into the craft of songwriting, it’s hard to process why that she isn’t considered to be one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. She has a perfectly respectable career as a touring singer-songwriter, and she also has a few books published. But she is hardly a household name.

In the mid 90s, Dar Williams was the first person I was ever aware of who had a huge devoted online community with their own forum, that would write loving parody lyrics to her songs. But major record labels back then had no interest in capitalising on this. There’s a snippet of a Frank Zappa interview that goes in viral cycles in which Zappa says the music business was better off with the old cigar-chomping executives (who were prepared to put out music they didn’t understand on the off-chance it might sell) than the current ‘hip’ execs (who thought they understood what the public wanted). And had Dar started her music career in the 1960s, when the business was run by the old guys who took risks, that devoted fanbase she had would almost certainly have snowballed into a global audience. But, alas, it was the 1990s. She wasn’t Grunge, or Metal, or Urban, or Country, or an Alanis Morissette imitator. My guess is that the music industry didn’t know how to promote her, and didn’t see the point in trying. The big players were all focused on already-established markets they felt they understood.

Perhaps the upside of this is that nothing about Dar Williams’s music feels moulded or shaped to fit a particular audience. Here is an example. The final song on the second album is called Mortal City, and it’s about a woman who moves to a city that she doesn’t know, and ends up going on a date with the brother of someone she works next to. It’s the dead of winter, in one of those Biblically cold cities in North America. When he gets to her apartment there’s a powercut (kind of… long story), and they both have to put on as many clothes as they can and get into bed, just as a matter of survival. And the rest of the song is just the conversation between these two people who have just met, about what it’s like to live in a city where you don’t know anyone, and about what it’s like to live in cities at all, and what it’s like to just be alive. “I think I have a special kind of hearing tonight…” You get the sense that it might be two people beginning to fall in love, although that isn’t made explicit. It’s a song about such specific things – the opposite of a big generic anthem. And yet, it doesn’t sound like she’s just regurgitating her personal experience. Each of her songs is like a little novella.

And I suppose this is the point where I illustrate this by just quoting big chunks of her lyrics verbatim.

To pick one pretty much at random, she does a song — Flinty Kind of Woman — about a group of small-town women who like nothing better than to strap on hip-high waders, grab their fishing kit and then chase down local (suspected) sex offenders and torture them. It’s basically a fascinating and very detailed character study of a particular American small-town type. And it’s all done pretty much as a comedy.

It’s a small town life and I like it
‘Cause the bad don’t get in your way
There’s an angry God gonna strike it
Yeah, that’s what we pay him for, that’s why we pray
Well I guess the angry God he was a-fishing
When Molly called me up with the news
Within the space of a week
Yeah, a pervert or a sex freak
Let the kids take a peek
That’s more than a little cheek
No pun intended

I mentioned Alanis Morissette earlier, who was the leading voice in an early 1990s genre that could perhaps be summarised as “No, this behaviour is actually totally fucking unacceptable.” Morissette, along with artists such as Tori Amos, Aimee Mann and Liz Phair, wrote mainly autobiographical songs dealing with anger, self-doubt and fear that the whole relationship thing might just be completely futile. Some of those albums are amongst my favourite albums ever, but I was always struck by how different Dar Williams was to the singer-songwriters of her generation. She was frequently dealing with the same issues, but coming at them from another direction entirely. She seemed to be much less interested in her own personal experience, and more interested in what the world outside herself is like. An example of her writing about a disintegrating relationship is February, which is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. It starts:

I threw your keys in the water, I looked back,
They’d frozen halfway down in the ice.
They froze up so quickly, the keys and their owners,
Even after the anger, it all turned silent…

But it’s these lines that always get me:

And February was so long that it lasted into March
And found us walking a path alone together.
You stopped and pointed and you said, “That’s a crocus, ”
And I said, “What’s a crocus?” and you said, “It’s a flower, ”
I tried to remember, but I said, “What’s a flower?”
You said, “I still love you.”

The sense of a relationship that feels like it’s a thick blanket of winter snow that has weighing down on you so long that you don’t even remember that joy exists, never mind how to feel it again.

You might have gathered from lyrics I quoted earlier, however, that she also revels in the absurdity of life. Or, as she puts it in one song, sometimes “life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging”. This is the song that fits most neatly into the ‘shit boyfriend’ sub-genre, and it’s called The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed. She writes about a college relationship with a radical cannabis activist. “We used to say that our love was like hemp rope / Three times as strong as the rope that you buy domestically…” But it all falls apart when she catches him in bed with another activist. And the last verse:

I am older now, I know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory.
And I still write to my senators saying they should legalize cannabis,
And I should know, because I am a horticulturist,
I have a husband and two children out in Lexington, Mass.
And my ex-boyfriend can’t tell me I’ve sold out,
Because he’s in a cult.
And he’s not allowed to talk to me.

And then the song ends, almost midsentence.

No one ends a song, incidentally, or begins one, as well as Dar Williams does. A song called When Sal’s Burned Down starts:

Are we the fools for being surprised that a silence could end with no sound?
Like the silent movie era, like snow, like when Sal’s burned down…

Now that I’m older, and also know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory, the main thing that stands out to me about these two albums is how ahead of their time they feel. Or… perhaps ahead of our time now.

What do I mean by that? Here’s how I see it: most artists write in clichés, and that’s fine. Clichés are clichés for a reason. And many artists, particularly today, subvert the clichés. Basically, they give you the same old thing, but inverted. A few artists make a point of moving beyond clichés altogether. And on Dar Williams’s first two commercially released albums, it feels like she has been doing that for about 10 years. There is no reference to the existence of the Canon of Popular Music, that every artist in the 90s seemed to need to tread delicately around. She is just way way out in front, doing her own thing.

It is also very very… I want to say positive music, but that’s the wrong word. It’s constructive. It always seemed to me that what interested her as an artist was the question “What do we do, and who are we, when eventually Feminism has basically won?” Clearly she knows that there’s male bullshit in the world; it’s not like she’s pretending it doesn’t exist. But to me it feels like she doesn’t even want to give it the satisfaction of dwelling on it.

Something else that occurs to me is that her songs probably effected how I think of gender more than I realised. In the first song, called When I Was A Boy (which I quoted at the top of this article) she writes about being a tomboy as a child: “I don’t know how I survived / I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew / And you can walk me home, but I was a boy too”. And in the last verse she tells the man that she’s with that this used to be who she was, but now she has given up on it. She literally says, “I have lost and you have won”.

He says, “oh no, no, can’t you see?”
When I was a girl, my mom and I, we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked
And I could always cry, now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl, too
And you were just like me, and I was just like you