Dar Williams, Mortal City
Sophisticated wit and raw, unabashed emotion.
Enter the Mortal City and meet the bemused, the broken-hearted and the utterly bereft. Dar Williams brings the residents of her 1996 breakout album palpably, achingly to life with little more than the sweet simplicity of her voice and her pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. Blending sophisticated wit with raw, unabashed emotion, Williams creates characters who feel so real, so accessible, it’s no wonder Mortal City is the kind of record that can inspire dorm room singalongs and awaken the ambitions of acoustic guitar-toting wannabe folk singers.
The anthemic girl-power classic “As Cool as I Am” kicks off the album with a rousing tell off of a womanizing, soon-to-be ex-lover. Sarcasm abounds through the song: "And if it helps, I'd say I feel a little worse than I did when we met." Zing! But Williams is too fun (note the song's danceable beat, enhanced by harmonicas and drums) and too empowered (the refrain: "I'm not that petty/ As cool as I am I thought you'd know this already"), to come across as truly embittered. Later, Williams hones her sense of the absurd in songs such as "The Pointless, Yet Poignant Crisis of a Co-Ed." With crisp, staccato vocals that accentuate her subject's silliness, Williams tells the story of a young idealist who has an epiphany about her boyfriend, co-chair of a student group called the Hemp Liberation Army: "You stupid pothead."
The laughs that Williams scatters throughout Mortal City serve as stark contrast to the quiet devastation she summons in "February," an elegy for a frostbitten romance that won't survive winter's relentless snowstorms: "We were always out shoveling/ And we'd drop to sleep exhausted, and we'd wake up, and it's snowing." "February" belongs on the bleakest of breakup mixes, but "Iowa" is a stunner in which hope ultimately wins out over melancholy. Its lulling, repetitive refrain (just the word, "Iowa", over and over), belies the narrator's desire to break free from routine; to go “running through the screen doors of discretion" in pursuit of a new romance. Williams’s tentative optimism also pervades Mortal City‘s title track. As its occupants know, to live in a Mortal City means to embrace life's fleeting pleasures, and to try to find humor and redemption in heartbreak.