There once was a time when, at my house, a new Lucinda Williams record was something of a major event. I’m talking back when she only put out an album every five years or so. Then, after a seemingly endless wait, she would put out something like Sweet Old World or Car Wheels On A Gravel Road or Essence and all that much rumored obsessive perfectionism would result in about as great a record as any hard core roots music thrill seeker could hope for.
Man, those were the days.
Lately she’s been a lot more prolific than she was back then. Her latest release, “West,” on Lost Highway Records, is her third studio release since 2001. And if you count last year’s Live at the Fillmore, she’s been virtually cranking them out since the turn of the millennium, relatively speaking.
Of course quantity is no substitute for quality and scanning through the reviews, it seems the critics have drawn mostly the same conclusion:
“Not her best work”
At least that’s what I think Alfred Soto is saying in this Stylus Magazine review, but then again, after reading it a couple times, I’m not really sure just what the hell he’s saying:
"A shame an NPR market supercilious of the mercenary likes of Sheryl Crow has forced her to record songs that Crow herself would consider models of autumnal acuity. Williams can keep feeling herself up if she likes. Sooner or later she’s going to leave the house."
I’m not absolutely certain, but don’t think he likes it.
Over at Pop Matters, while Roger Holland reaches liberally into his big bag of snark, he still manages something that’s at least coherent:
“Listening to West, I’m forced finally to conclude something that should have been obvious from the start. Yes, Lucinda Williams has a magnificent voice. And yes, she writes marvelous songs. And yes, at least three (and probably more) of her records would make my personal top ten of all time. But much of the captivating emotional power she generates comes from the relationship between her voice and its musical setting. It’s like the circle of life, or a feedback loop, or something. Lucinda feeds off the musicians around her, they in turn feed off her, and everyone goes home sated and contented. With West, that circle has been broken.”
The main thrust of his article is that working with a new producer and (mostly) new musicians has sucked a lot of the vitality Lucinda and her touring band have managed to achieve. That and some of the songs aren’t quite up to her usual standard:
“I think I hear TIME calling, they want their “America’s best songwriter” headlines back.”
Did I mention that he’s kind of snarky?
Here’s his take on the albums worst track, Wrap My Head Around That:
“Having previously given Lucinda the benefit of the doubt for her prior offences in rap, I cannot forgive “Wrap My Head Around That”—nine (count them!) minutes of the clumsiest rapping ever over a homogenized, decaffeinated Talking Heads ‘80s blend.”
Dude, I can relate.
Moving on to Musicbox, John Metzger combines aspects of both of the above, Soto’s comparisons to Chrissie Hynde and Holland’s overall conclusions. He thinks her songwriting has grown lax:
“Williams’ biggest problem of late seems to stem from the fact that she is relying with greater frequency upon her music to do the heavy lifting. Where her words once were chosen so carefully, she now seems content simply to capture moods and feelings in generic terms. The more verbose that her songs become, the more her lyrics begin to feel labored.”
I would counter that only a couple tracks on West feel labored. Yet he manages to give the record 4 stars.
Another 4 star review that still can’t quite hide it’s disappointment can be found at Rolling Stone. Here Robert Christgau lays some of the blame on Lu’s recent relatively voluminous output:
“…That Lucinda had released four albums of her own songs on four labels in eighteen years — all of which, back to 1980’s girlish, strummed-acoustic Happy Woman Blues, favored concrete narrative and verse-chorus structures. This Lucinda has released three studio albums plus a redundant live double in six years, all of which tend toward metaphysical abstraction and open-ended incantation…”
Sylvie Simmons at The Guardian gives it a full five stars while only writing one paragraph:
“… It’s inspired by a period that took in her mother’s death and the end of a love affair. The predominant theme is pain, and no one does pain as eloquently as Williams – or as multifariously. West is all musical mood swings: from stoic, heartbreak country to fierce revenge rock, retro pop to folk, poetry to rap, mellow California to dark LA rock. What makes Williams such an important country artist, besides the excellent songwriting and that sultry, scarred southern voice, is her skill at stretching the genre’s boundaries while mining its essence. Which, often as not, is pain.”
OK, no one does pain like Lucinda. Real pain, not that faux emo pain that’s so popular with the goth kids these days. Her true genius is expressing that kind of soul wringing pain that life has a way of dealing out and finding just the right words and the perfect musical accompaniment to back it up.
And that’s what I find missing here- the perfection part. There’s pain, Mama You Sweet is quite literally a description of physical pain. Learning to Live is all about overcoming emotional pain, but listening to it here, I just can’t shake that feeling of déjà vu.
My favorite track, What If, also happens to be one the bulk of the reviews cite as a major misstep. Sure the lyrics are either kind of nonsensical or she’s dealing with metaphors on a level that flies way over my head, but it just sounds so good. And, ironically, it’s all about hope not pain.
To be fair, it goes without saying that with her previous work, Lucinda has set the bar pretty damn high. And when you’ve put out as consistent a run of exceptional records as she has, “West” is hardly a reason to start writing her musical epitaph. In fact, it’s not really that bad record at all. She treads some ground she’s tread more deftly before and the production does seem a bit sterile and, of course, there’s that bad “wrap” song.
But on the whole, a sub par Lucinda Williams record is still considerably better than 95% of what comes out of Nashville these days.