At this point in her career, some 20-odd years later, Dar Williams needs no real introduction. An American icon in her own right, the prolific pop/folk singer-songwriter and political activist has earned her spot in the States as one of the strongest songwriters of the generation. Her latest studio release, Emerald, pulls together a patchwork quilt’s worth of varied faces from across the realm of music producers and collaborators. Altogether, this makes for an album that becomes a marked standout amongst even her own wide breadth of work, offering something a little different from the norm with appearances by Jim Lauderdale, Jonny Polonski, Trevor Gordon Hall, and more kindly inundating the work with their presence.
A known warrior against depression, Williams ultimately comes out on top in opening track ‘Something to Get Through’, a track with a sunny instrumental disposition accentuated by an emotionally encompassing performance on lap steel by Josh Kaler. Mindfully musing that “you will be laughing with your friends in the light of the new day, just not today,” Williams decompresses any loaded realities regarding the idea of a bout against melancholy and its seemingly unending story, bravely coming to grips with living with what she’s been dealt and making the best of it. Needless to say, the track makes for a memorable and thought-provoking opener before transitioning into the 20th century throwback anthem “FM Radio”, taking the initial irony of a sunny instrumental disposition and driving it home in the “meaning” department, too.
She takes an eerier turn on “Empty Plane”, a track accentuated by its brooding and spontaneous instrumental nature, sewn together by an extemporaneous, yet studied collective of haunting sounds to back up a slower, more introspective vocal delivery. Title track “Emerald” is also of note, featuring brilliant picking by Richard Thompson and vibrant forest, river, and garden-based imagery, whereas “Slippery Slope”, a duet with the aforementioned Jim Lauderdale, is sunken neck-deep into the deep honesties of a relationship dangerously close to slipping away before coming back from the edge. Instrumentally, the album comes to a head on the gorgeously sincere “Girl of the World”, featuring a lush piano, cello, and guitar collective on behalf of Heidi Breyer, Eugene Freisen, and Will Ackerman. Things wrap up with the beautifully sparse “New York is a Harbor”, which holds as much love for the big city as it does a resounding concern for it, reminding listeners of the soul put into the city and, in particular, the Statue of Liberty.
Without giving the need to ramble much further – Emerald is an exquisite album.
Words: Jonathan Frahm