At heart, Dar Williams is a folkie who also loves pop music, and while her affection for the stuff is genuine, she doesn't always seem sure about how to integrate it into her own music, sometimes making for a graceful fusion and other times sounding like a shotgun wedding between the gentle and the forceful sides of her personality. For her seventh studio album, 2008's Promised Land, Williams went into the studio with producer Brad Wood, who previously worked with Liz Phair, Tortoise, and Pete Yorn, and given his knack for dealing with both smart songwriting and edgy musical backdrops, Wood seemed like a fine choice to help Williams resolve her musical mind/body conflicts. While Wood was clearly a sympathetic collaborator, Promised Land surprisingly leans to the folkie end of Williams' spectrum rather than the pop; while there are a few bright uptempo numbers here like "Go to the Woods" (which features a guest vocal from Suzanne Vega), "Buzzer," and "It's Alright," the band never pushes Williams any harder than is comfortable, and more often the songs are married to subtle, unobtrusive arrangements that offer much more in atmosphere than energy, such as "Holly Tree" and "You Are Everyone." Presumably Wood was smart enough to realize this was not the right collection of songs for Williams to embrace her inner pop goddess; clearly an album that reflects its time, Promised Land is a set of introspective meditations on a troubled world, and while these songs are not without wit and occasionally cast their eye on romance, the worried woman in "Buzzer" who contemplates her own complicity in a corrupt culture, the people who retreat into a pastoral refuge in "Go to the Woods," and the homage to the artists who sustain us through difficult times on "Midnight Radio" all cast different reflections on a world that teeters on the brink of madness. Despite the deep shadows of this music, Promised Land is an album that carries a fervent hope in its heart, and Williams and her collaborators (including Greg Leisz and Marshall Crenshaw) find a cool and sustaining beauty in these songs that serves them and their composer very well.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming