Let me get this out of the way at the start: in spite of what’s coming, I like Lucinda Williams. I love her music, which I’ve followed avidly since her late ‘70s blues albums on Smithsonian Folkways. I’ve seen her in concert several times. I don’t know her personally, but I wish her well. But she’s still made a near-stinker of a new album. I wish it wasn’t so.
West, due out February 13th, is the latest in a series of gradually declining releases since 1998’s masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That album, redolent with sweat and dirt, love and lust, captured a sense of place as well as any album ever made, as Lucinda explored the American Deep South with idiosyncratic, finely detailed geographical and personal reflections. Essence and World Without Tears, the albums that followed, were solid efforts, but failed to recapture the magic entirely. With West, the decline is far more precipitous.
To be sure, West has its high points, most of them grouped near the middle of the album. “Fancy Funeral” is a starkly moving ballad, Lucinda mournfully recalling her recently departed mother, poking at the hole in the soul that seems incapable of being filled, her always-fragile voice cracking and breaking in ways that will melt your heart. “Everything Has Changed” is a lovely and bittersweet acknowledgement of emotional hollowness, while “Rescue” is a harrowing 3:00 a.m. confession of existential loneliness. Of the few uptempo tracks, “Unsuffer Me” is a searing slow-burn blues, and “Come On” a righteously pissed off howler and indignant middle finger to a former lover. These songs finally move the album beyond its prevalent downbeat dirge and into full-blown Neil Young/Crazy Horse territory, and they can hold up with the best Lucinda has ever written.
But there are problems. Sweet Jesus, are there problems. Williams has never been known for her hook-laden melodies, but the somnambulant opener “Are You Alright?” takes mind-numbingly repetitious to a whole new level, while the second track “Mama Sweet” fixates on the two words in the title and repeats them like a mantra. It’s not so much “hypnotic” as “nap inducing.” If you’re still awake ten minutes in, you’ll discover a pretty good album. Unfortunately the trend continues late as well, with the ill-advised nine-minute talking blues “Wrap My Head Around That” followed by the laconic “Words,” which actually contains some pretty good ones. Sadly, they are masked by a tune so quiescent and monotonous that you may not be able to remain conscious to hear them. It makes me realize how indebted Lucinda was on her earlier albums to departed guitarist/producer Gurf Morlix, who injected both energy and supremely melodic, chiming guitar runs. The fact is that on at least half these tracks Lucinda commits the unpardonable musical sin: she’s deadly boring.
More disturbingly, “America’s best songwriter” (according to Time Magazine) seems remarkably unfocused and lazy. “Are You Alright?,” that snoozer of a leadoff track, offers such lobotomized sub-Hallmark Card sentiments as “Are you sleepin’ through the night?/Do you have someone to hold you tight?” before the title phrase echoes, ad nauseam, through an extended coda. It’s a stultifyingly dull and cliché-ridden five minutes, all the more shocking because Lucinda is capable of genuinely great writing.
Lucinda Williams has too strong a track record to give up on her entirely, or to think that she might not be considerably better next time out. So I’ll be listening for her next move. But with West, America’s best songwriter has gone south, and this time she’s nowhere close to the geographic or emotional epicenter that gives her best work such deep weight and resonance.