I typically pair my love for Dar Williams with my love for Elizabeth Elmore. Regardless of what they sing about, their songs proceed in the same unique way. The music is always as intimate, because Williams and Elmore seem to like themselves; they hold onto their tics, and their body gestures, and they never leave out a joke or a groan. They bare the muscles in their minds, and accept their melodies for what they are: mirrors of their respective pulses. Perhaps this makes many of their songs sound like one long conversation, held while wired on coffee, but that same attribute causes their fans to treat their new records like visits from dear friends.
Having just heard it five times straight, I'm certain that The Beauty of the Rain is not far removed from Williams's previous records. It has the same inflections, the same pulse, and the same balance of slow and peppy. The humor is less abundant, but works when it appears ("I asked the ethereal girls if they were floating yet"), and there's a greater stress upon dramatic, frequently anthemic choruses. To some extent, Williams is like folk music's Paul Westerberg; she tries to speak for everyone forever sixteen and blue, and tries to sweep up entire youth movements within her choruses.
While those choruses are often fabulous in their urgency ("The world's not falling apart, Because of me"), a few are pushed too hard, as if Williams is trying to hammer a commandment home. The title track is a beautiful, moving listen, yet the chorus ("The beauty of the rain is how it falls") would make a good fortune cookie fortune. It's not a line to study for life, but it's delivered as such. The grandiose presentation ultimately denies much of the song's real beauty and intimacy ("You'll take her any way she sings, or how she calls"), none of which I caught until I read the lyrics while listening.
I'm seldom bothered by an artist's melodic repetitions, as they reveal inner selves best, but "I Saw a Bird Fly Away" may too closely resemble songs in Williams's back catalog. Its lyrics are wordy ("The tabloid tainted actress") in a fan-pleasing way, and feel as if they intentionally resemble songs from The Honesty Room. Far better, and far more lasting, are her slower tracks -- never before her strongest suit -- and those in which the lyrics are achingly minimalist. "I Have Lost My Dreams", written during a time of happiness, just crushes me, and Williams's cover of The Band's "Whispering Pines" is a perfect match for her voice. Cliff Eberhardt makes a fascinating guest vocal spot here, too; he sounds like a dead ringer for Levon Helm.
The Beauty of the Rain shows us a Dar Williams who is very comfortable with herself, her talents, and the folk-pop path she has routinely traversed. It's probably a bolder, more daring record than it will ever be given credit for, as it's rare that an artist recognizes that she does some things very well, and then does them. If you're looking for growth, it's definitely evident in the structures of the slow songs -- "I Have Lost My Dreams" and "The Beauty of the Rain" are more interesting than the traditionalist "End of Summer" -- and Williams's occasional willingness to write without any of her personality showing through. Beats me where I'll end up ranking The Beauty of the Rain among her other albums, but this is no disappointment. There's no "Road Buddy" to avoid after the first ten-odd listens, and there's a real sense that Williams is still fully committed to tweaking her music until it's perfect.