Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lucinda Williams -- West

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.

8 comments:

teddy dellesky said...

I heard her new song on NPR yesterday. I was ok. recently i've revisited Essence for the first time sice it came out 5? years ago. Its growing on me. At first, i had a hard time with it, inevitably comparing it to Car Wheels...never a good thing for one's expectations. shes hard not to love nonetheless. the sound, the look, the voice.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

In my opinion, Lucinda has always been slightly uneven, with excellent and great albums followed by less impressive ones. I didn't like Essence, but since it followed Car Wheels, I wasn't surprised. I thought World Without Tears was better, so I guess it's time for a clunker. At least I'm glad to be forewarned so I can save my money.

Anonymous said...

So half the songs are great and the album sucks... How many artists would kill to have a score like that. But critics need to criticise or what are they? :)

What i really wnat to know is how you got your paws on the disc already. That I would die for... and brother-in-law Bill, to pass up the disc because some of the songs are not perfect is masocistic (sp)

Andy Whitman said...

Anon, that's about how it shakes out. I hold Lucinda to a pretty high standard. And she doesn't live up to it this time out. Half the songs are great, slightly less than half are boring, and one is simply dreadful. I'd say that translates to about a C, or if you'd prefer it in 5-star terms, about 2.5 stars. If this were Ashley Simpson, that would be an unqualified triumph. But since it's Lucinda Williams, it's a disappointment.

I have the disc because I review albums for a couple magazines and web sites. It's a nice perq. And yes, criticism is what critics have to offer, for better or worse. I don't apologize for that.

john r. williamson said...

interesting read, andy.

i haven't really listened to "world without tears", but i remember hearing "you took my joy" for the first time about 20 years ago in the palomino in north hollywood. it was a sheer disappointment to hear her doing that kind of a song with such an unforgivingly redundant refrain. that song was the first sign that she was capable of imperfection.

still, i look forward to her album and shows. i remember her mom had been in the crowd when i saw her in new orleans at the house of blues about 5 years ago.

what an amazing singer she is!

i love "sweet old world".

-john

denis said...

You write with a solid pen, have paid your respects at Lucinda's concerts, but really - come on - this record is, and I have only been listening an hour or so - sublime. The Guardian (UK) mention a comparison with Dylan's Modern Times - insightful. So, loosen up and, go south. Best, D.

Chris said...

I love the new record - only two songs "Unsuffer me" and "Rescue" are not to my taste.

ed askew said...

i just read your really nice article on LITTLE EYES on PASTE MAG. i tried to leve a comment there but it didn't work. anyway this my myspace:
www.myspace.com/ecaskew
come visit. i have a new CD out. info there. ed