So many of the female singer-songwriters who emerged during the Lilith Fair era have simply been rerecording the same album to diminishing artistic and commercial returns for the last decade, but Dar Williams manages to avoid that kind of stagnation with Promised Land. While her previous effort, 2005’s My Better Self, mostly fell within her wheelhouse of clever, candid modern folk, some of the choices of cover tunes and production tricks on that album nudged Williams’s sound in a more pop direction. Working with producer Brad Wood, Williams takes a sizable leap toward more accessible adult top 40 for her new album. That she’s able to craft some standout pop hooks without sacrificing any of the distinctive elements of her idiosyncratic brand of topical, hyper-literate folk makes Promised Land perhaps her strongest start-to-finish album since 1996’s Mortal City.
One of the things that distinguishes Williams from many of her contemporaries is that she’s able to balance her biting wit with a genuine sense of warmth and even soulfulness. On opener “It’s Alright,” for instance, that plays to her advantage: The handclaps that drive the chorus initially come across as sarcastic, but as the tone of the song shifts in the exceptionally well-written final stanza (“It’s a sad and it’s a strange thing/But it’s time and I am changing/Into something good or bad, well that’s your guess/I’m my own sovereign nation/Dedicated to a transformation/Marching on with this target on my chest”), the tone of the production shifts into something of a rallying cry. Later, she casts the “business breakup” song “The Business of Things” as a slow-building gospel number built around a bouncing piano line and horn section. Her choices of cover songs are inspired as well: She lifts the standout “Troubled Times” from Fountains of Wayne’s brilliant Utopia Parkway and gives a flat-out gorgeous reading of “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
From the covers to Wood’s polished production, the choices on Promised Land all work well and play to Williams’s strengths. While she has never shied away from writing openly political songs, she avoids any real broadsides here. In their place, songs like “The Easy Way” and “Buzzer” are more personal assessments of the where things have gone wrong and why there are still reasons for optimism. As a result, Promised Land is an album that feels timely and politically relevant. As its title suggests and its songs reiterate, change actually can be a destination.