Song of the Day #341: ‘After All’ – Dar Williams

darwilliamsDar Williams is another example of an artist I don’t completely get (I’m not a “fan” in the sense I discussed yesterday) but I love a lot of her songs.

Actually, I can go further than that… Dar Williams has written some of my very favorite songs, songs that move me, shake me, rip me apart and put me back together again.

One example is ‘When I Was a Boy,’ which I wrote about back in October (and which remains my #1 YouTube referral… clearly that song has touched a lot of people).

Another example is today’s song, ‘After All,’ the highlight of her album The Green World. The structure of the two songs is similar, in that they are unfolding narratives more than typical verse-chorus-verse constructions. In fact, I don’t think either of these songs really has a chorus. What they both do have is powerful and poignant lyrics.

‘After All’ is about Williams’ battle with depression and a brief flirtation with suicide. It’s a poem, really, just set to beautifully delicate music and sung in her whisper-pretty voice. The imagery here is wonderful: a description of her mood as “a winter machine that you go through and then you catch your breath and winter starts again and everyone else is spring bound”; the image of her grandfather “raging down a spiral stair”; and a bit of wisdom that “it’s better to have fallen in love than never to have fallen at all.”

The song traces her journey from deciding against suicide because “I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost” to finding real meaning in life — the difference between deciding not to die and deciding to live. It’s summed up beautifully in the switch from “when I chose to live there was no joy” early in the song to ending with “now I laugh at how the world changed me… I think life chose me.”

I’m not deep enough to have gone through any existential crises like this in my own life, but listening to this song is cathartic anyway. I like to think that Dar Williams, by sharing her own experience so elegantly, might help somebody out there through her own.

Go ahead, push your luck
Find out how much love the world can hold
Once upon a time I had control
And reined my soul in tight

Well the whole truth
It’s like the story of a wave unfurled
But I held the evil of the world
So I stopped the tide
Froze it up from inside

And it felt like a winter machine
That you go through and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring bound

And when I chose to live
There was no joy
It’s just a line I crossed
I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost
So I was not lost or found

And if I was to sleep
I knew my family had more truth to tell
So I traveled down a whispering well
To know myself through them

Growing up, my mom had a room full of books
And hid away in there
Her father raging down a spiral stair
‘Til he found someone
Most days his son

And sometimes I think
My father, too, was a refugee
I know they tried to keep their pain from me
They could not see what it was for

But now I’m sleeping fine
Sometimes the truth is like a second chance
I am the daughter of a great romance
And they are the children of the war

Well the sun rose
With so many colors, it nearly broke my heart
It worked me over like a work of art
And I was part of all that

So go ahead, push your luck
Say what it is you gotta say to me
We will push on into that mystery
And it’ll push right back
And there are worse things than that

Cause for every price
And every penance that I could think of
It’s better to have fallen in love
Than never to have fallen at all

‘Cause when you live in a world
Well it gets into who you thought you’d be
And now I laugh at how the world changed me
I think life chose me after all

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5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #341: ‘After All’ – Dar Williams

  1. Amy says:

    Just reread the thread for “When I Was a Boy” and was fascinated by Andy’s observation that Williams used an alternate tuning for her guitar. Fascinating. I never would have guessed or even wondered but now I hear the “bite” he’s talking about. Thanks, Andy.

    This song is another great one, though I don’t find it in quite the same league as “Boy.” Am I interpreting the lyrics correctly when I come to the conclusion that the speaker in this song (Williams, herself, you suggest) is feeling suicidal on behalf of her parents? It seems her angst and grief is for what they have suffered, while she is a “child of a great romance.” If so, she reminds me of a character in The Secret Life of Bees; this woman suffered from a sort of empathyitis, where she felt so strongly the pain of others that she internalized it until it made her more desperate than any of those who actually experienced the tragedies first-hand.

    Perhaps that is the plight of the artist? One that Dar Williams describes here as a daughter aching for her parents’ war-torn childhoods, but one where that daughter is a symbol for the artist and the parents symbols for all the people around her. She certainly seems to suggest so in the first verse when she says, “I held the evil of the world/ So I stopped the tide/ Froze it up from the inside.”

    I’m glad she found a way to release the tide and still laugh at the world around her. I think life does choose those artists who have the gift to so eloquently and elegantly express the pain everyone else feels.

  2. Dana says:

    I generally like what I hear from Dar Williams. Good stuff.

  3. Clay says:

    I read the lines about her parents differently. I think she reconsidered suicide in part to save her parents the grief, and that led her to explore her family history, “to know myself through them,” as she puts it.

    And what she discovered was that their lives were pretty rough… they were “children of the war” in both a literal and figurative sense, who dealt with their own traumas. And she wishes they had shared some of that grief with her, because then maybe she wouldn’t have felt so alone in her own grief.

    “I know they tried to keep their pain from me / They could not see what it was for”

    But I don’t think she blames them for that… it’s more of an observation, the truth that’s “like a second chance.”

  4. mercyofthefallen says:

    Maybe the frozen tide is depression. Dar has openly talked about depression and how she got herself a good therapist in college. Her parents are ones who survived their phyically and emotionally abusive childhoods. She is the child of their great love affair.

    She feared suicide and what the lack of being more than having the courage of the act.

    She found her way past this, her budding career with help along the way…. and the waited it out.

    a suicide expert friend of mine used to say…” you can always do it tomorrow”

    This song touches alot of people’s lives. Many people relate to it and it was courageous of Dar to write it and then sing it publically but Dar’s lyrics evoke alot of feelings…

  5. Marie says:

    This song touched me so deeply. As a survivor of severe depression, I’ve never heard another song that so heartbreakingly and beautifully portrayed what that battle is like. The lines “When I chose to live, there was no joy it’s just a line I crossed, I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost” went straight to my heart – what a perfect way of describing what it’s like to want desperately to commit suicide but not do it because you’re afraid of those you’d be leaving behind. And the way she describes coming through it and back to life again – in colors and warmth this time – is so poetic and wonderful.

    You very rarely see accurate portrayals of mental illness, especially depression, in popular culture and it’s refreshing to come across this.

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