There’s a very fine line between being dramatic and melodramatic in pop music. Two singers can use almost the same style of presentation with one of them going over the top and the other sounding perfectly believable. If there is one style of singing that lends itself to this type of abuse more than others I’d have to say it would be the ethereal-voiced singer who barely whispers his or her lyrics. Like those who seem to think the louder I sing the more emotional I sound, these believe the wispier I am the more sincere and earnest I sound.
Unfortunately most of them just end up being annoying. You either can’t make out a word they’re saying, as their vocals are swamped by the inevitable atmospheric music they always seem to choose as accompaniment, or when you can hear them their voice is so precious it makes you want to scream. It’s as if they’d never heard the word substance and figure if they sound deep and mysterious enough the audience won’t care they’re not really singing about anything.
It becomes increasingly obvious how artificial most of these singers sound when you hear someone like Diana Darby. Her most recent release, IV (intravenous), on her own Delmore Recordings label, is a collection of 12 thoughtful and moving songs. Those familiar with her previous work will be aware of her very individualistic style of singing, which borders on being lighter than air. However, Darby distinguishes herself from others both in the way her vocals are an organic extension of her material and her range of expression. She doesn’t spend the whole recording whispering to us in a more earnest-than-thou voice. Instead she comes across as a real person, not some will of the wisp whose just nipped in from a New Age version of the fairy realm.
With songs dealing with everything from mourning the passing of a pet dog to a fundamentalist parent who delights in telling her family they’re all going to hell, her material isn’t what you’d call typical of pop music. The low-pitched intensity of her voice suits this type of material. There’s an introspective quality to the material which demands a certain level of quiet contemplation. As you listen, you can see how her voice fits with her songs and any other vocal approach wouldn’t sound right.
Sometimes the softness of her voice is an expression of compassion for her subject while at other times it makes her lyrics stand out with shocking intensity. “Looking For Trouble”, the disc’s opening track, is a lament for the death of her own dog sung in the third person. “You keep looking for trouble/Looking for trouble/Don’t you girl/You think he will come to you/But you don’t know what he’ll do”. At first listen it’s not clear what the song is about. In fact, unless you read her website and find out Darby’s dog Trouble died recently you might think its about a woman who chooses to date the wrong guy all the time.
At first the lyrics seem ambiguous, but when you start to think about them in terms of losing a pet they make a lot of sense. You hear a noise and you turn around expecting it to be the animal and are reminded again of its absence when you don’t see it. Looking doesn’t mean you’re searching for the animal, it means you keep thinking you’ll see it. By singing about herself in the third person, she prevents this song from becoming maudlin. She doesn’t try to describe how sad or emotional she was made by the animal’s death. What she details instead is what’s it like to experience the hole left in our lives by the sudden absence of a familiar presence. Long after we think we’re done with our mourning it still comes as a shock to realize whoever it is we’re missing is never going to walk into the room again.
Darby doesn’t try to elicit sympathy from us with her voice on this song with any forced trembling or other such silliness. She just gently talks about the circumstances. In fact by talking about her experiences in the third person, it’s like she’s offering sympathy to those who have experienced what the song describes. In doing this she’s able to create a bridge with her audience based on real emotions. She’s able to take a subject which could easily lend itself to sentimentality and turn into a universal statement on death, loss and the grieving process.
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have a person in your family who tries to force their religious beliefs down everyone else’s throat. In the her song “Heaven”, Darby describes a family whose mother spends her time telling her children they and their father are going to Hell. “My mother worries we were not Baptized/My mother worries we can’t be with her/My mother says it’s written in the verse/We won’t go to Heaven/We won’t go to Heaven”. As in the previously mentioned song, Darby describes what’s going on without passing judgement or reacting emotionally to what the mother says.
It’s as if she trusts us to form our own opinions.Try and imagine how’d you feel if your mother told you stuff like, “Your father’s going to hell because he’s Jewish”, or if you don’t accept Christ as your king you’ll go to hell? She says lines like these and the ones quoted above with almost no inflection. The words stand out like bold type in dark black ink on a clean white sheet of paper. There’s a starkness to them which makes you feel empty. What kind of person could say such cruel things to and about people they supposedly love? Maybe somebody who held to the same belief system as the person speaking those words would see it differently, but what kind of person would tell their children their other parent is going to hell?
Darby’s songs aren’t going to be for everyone. They’re not innocuous pop songs with a bouncy beat and happy go lucky lyrics which are going to make you want to dance. What they do offer is emotionally honest takes on life, told in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. She does show occasional flights of whimsy which break the disc up. In the song “Ugly Little Toad” she creates a parable about sustainable living through her description of a toad who depletes the food in his little pond through greed. Cute and funny, it still leaves no doubt in your mind what’s she talking about and stresses the importance of sustainable living better than most so called environmental songs.
Darby is an intelligent songwriter with a unique voice. Unlike others who affect either an airy or an earnestly subdued tone when they sing, her quietness is a natural extension of her material. Introspective without naval gazing, when she turns her eye inwards she also manages to see beyond herself. So whether she’s describing something highly personal like the death of her dog or talking about an issue, she finds a way of doing so which almost anybody will be able to identify with. Take some time out of your day and sit and listen to this disc, it will be time well spent.