West

Lucinda Williams

Lost Highway, 2007

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/26/2007

Almost four years have passed since Lucinda Williams has released an album. In that span, she has lost her mother, went through a few turbulent relationships and has gotten engaged.

Partially inspired by Bob Dylan’s simple, mortality-facing Time Out Of Mind, Williams described West a “last batch” of songs she wanted to release. “Batch” is usually a bad word when describing an album, alluding to something that isn’t uniformed whole. But West is similar to her other unified albums in the themes of loss, tattered relationships, renewal and connections to land and family.

Lyric-wise, West is as solid as any other Lucinda Williams album. Her fixation with American geography is all over “Where is My Love.” “Is my love in Gainesville / grinning, radiant and warm / drinking whiskey ‘til he’s had his fill / inspired by a summer storm.” Title-wise, it’s hard not to think of Cat Power’s song of the same title, which was released last year. But whereas Chan Marshall’s musical risks on The Greatest resulted in some of her greatest recordings, Williams’ musical risks on West seems to have resulted in her most constrained album.

The songs that have generated the most press on West are “Come On” and the nine-minute atmospheric “Wrap My Head Around That.” “Come On” has been described by some critics as “hilarious” and as “juvenile” by others. When Williams growls “Dude, you’re so fired / shut up, I’m not inspired / all I’m feeling now is tired / you didn’t even make me, come on!” – you’re supposed to feel her anger, but all I could think about as the way she belted out those same “come on”’s in my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 World Without Tears’ “Atonement.”  The droning electric guitar makes the song plod to its finish. The ending line “You can’t light my fire so fuck off” may have been used to elicit a feeling of unease with the listener, but the uneasy reaction comes from witnessing one of Williams’ weakest moments on an album, not for its vulgarity. It’s almost like watching a favorite performer have a very off night on stage.

Still, Williams has hardly entered a weak recording cycle, such the one that befell Bob Dylan in the early ‘70s and early ‘80s. “Fancy Funeral,” a song written about her mother Lucille, rivals the power of “Pineola” off of Sweet Old World. Debating about the cost for a funeral is as common of an experience as anyone is going to experience and Williams’ brings this experience as close to the listener as possible when she sings “It’s three or four months' salary / Just to pay for all those things.”

Hal Willner, a producer who has produced an incredible array of tribute albums and has produced great, unified pieces out of the most unlikely of collaborations, such as the William S. Burroughs / Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s team up Spare Ass Annie and Other Takes, initially distilled West’s sound to just Williams’ voice and guitar. The lack of the steel guitar, a sound that has become synonymous with a Lucinda Williams recording, may cause a few fans to recoil, but Willner does something else that most fans probably thought was impossible: make Williams’ voice sound lost in some of the cluttered arrangements.

West’s heavy focus on ballads isn’t unique for Williams. With Essence, she released an album almost entirely of downtempo ballads. However, she did include a rebel-rouser of a track with “Get Right With God.” Such a moment is desperately needed with West. It’s an album that few singer/songwriters could even attempt to make. But expectations, partly from fans and critics, partly from the artist herself, are much higher for Lucinda Williams. The absence of some of Williams’ more traditional songwriting and instrument choices should have resulted in an album that divided fans.

However, because of the sameness of most of the songs on West, the album can’t even exist as a polarizing album. Instead, the listener gets an album of 13 new Lucinda Williams songs. A definite reason to celebrate, but for the first time, the emotional impact of an entire album listening experience from Williams is lacking.

Rating: B-

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© 2007 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Lost Highway, and is used for informational purposes only.