When I lived in New Orleans, all of my barfly buddies—Musician mates, artists and poet friends—all of us had a crush on Lucinda Williams. We would all stay up late smoking cigarettes herbal and otherwise, drinking and musing all the reasons we loved Lucinda. Every bar had Lucinda’s CDs in their jukeboxes and we would spend as many quarters playing songs off Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road as we did drinking shots and toasts to her. Even now when I hear her singing it brings me back to those nights in one of the many hidden French Quarter bars I would frequent. We would sit into the early Louisiana morning hours scribbling drunken odes on bar napkins as she serenaded us with songs like “Can’t Let Go,”, we imagined, she was singing to each one of us. All of her songs are forever engraved with happy memories of my years of New Orleans.
It’s fitting that, Williams being a Louisiana native, I have a bond with N.O. But it wasn’t until her new album West that I truly connected with the voice I have been longing for all of these years. There is something about a strong independent artistic woman that has always intrigued, attracted and inspired me emotionally and creatively. Now add Southern-born to this equation and there’s an even bigger spark. Lucinda has the intricate voice that’s altogether achingly beautifully, poetic, raw and honest that I long for in an artistic and romantic companion. With a unique voice, Williams would sometimes be known as the female Dylan, but like some artists, a-la KD Lang, her prior albums did sound a bit too polished and overproduced. This is something that has haunted Williams throughout her career. Even though her albums have won critical acclaim, industry awards and legion of devoted following, there was something missing. They were a little too perfect—what was missing was a little southern imperfection in Lucinda’s brilliance.
This brings us to West, the album that I have been waiting for Lucinda Williams to make all of her career. Lucinda’s voice comes out clearer and with more sincerity than on any album before. I believe this has a lot to do with her collaboration with producer Hal Wilner, famous for his production work with Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Beat poet/writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and even produced Hole’s My Body, The Hand Grenade. I add this because many a night someone would walk into one of our French Quarter Bars and ask us why were we playing a countrified Hole record. Many novices to Lucinda Williams claim that she sounds like Courtney Love. When in reality, Love wishes she had the gift of poetical rhyme and artistic seasonings that Lucinda carries like a southern chanteuse; when she sings her whole essence comes to life on record. Nothing is left out, after hearing Lucinda sing you can’t help but feel as though she has left her blood and tears sprinkled through the verses of her songs.
Some die-hard Lucinda fans might be turned off with the sound of West, as it’s a bit out of her alt-country range into a more soulful, post-modern acoustic blues record. There are splashes of her folk-tinged sound that we all know and love but there’s more of a move to a modern electric, much like Dylan did in the ’60s when he moved away from the acoustic folk songs he was known for. Lucinda shouldn’t expect that kind or any major backlash, but to me there’s a sense of bravery for taking a risk like this. Reflecting a move away from the South and toward California during the making of this new album, the themes of this record touch upon a search for personal freedom and rejuvenation by starting over and coming to terms with loss, whether it be a death or an end of a relationship and dealing with loneliness and misplaced love. I kind of wish this album would have come out before I moved to California, as now, West is a set of songs that seems to reflect the emotional upheaval of my new life.
The first single is the bluesy ode to a former love that asks the question “Are You Alright.” In this song, Lucinda just wants to know—”that you’re ok.” She’s looking for a clue or a hint that there’s still a chance of reconciliation by asking—”Are you Alright?” There’s a sense of longing through out this song that comes out in the blues riffs and the melodic backing vocals that pull you from the chorus and never let you go. I hear “Mama my Sweet” as her modern day version of Elvis’ classic “That’s Alright Mama,” his first recording at Sun Studios. Lucinda’s version is more poetic, with verses like “Oceans becomes tears/that ebb and flow over the lines in my face.” It’s a lyrical lament that Lucinda dedicates to her Mother (who recently passed away), and “Mama my Sweet” is a fitting tribute.
“Learning How to Live” is a song that I hear as one dealing with a loss of a flame in one’s life. But I also believe this is another song that Lucinda wrote for her Mother as Lucinda sings “I’ll take the best of what you had to give and I’ll make the most of what you left me with/ I’m learning how to live.” Either way, this song is about dealing with a passing, whether be a lover or a family member. You can hear the influence of Lucinda’s poet father Miller throughout most of the tracks on West. More than just lyrics, the words lift from the page and from the song and can live and breathe on their own. Just like Dylan’s, Williams’ words have a life of their own away from record. It’s more than just a song; her lyrics are poetic paintings that live in our ears and in our own aches long after the album has ended.
“Unsuffer Me” is a modern blues that come alive with the pounding backbeat of Jim Keltner’s drums. Echoing the sound of an aching heart beating with memories of a lost love, Lucinda sings “unsuffer me/take away the pain.” We have all been there, waiting for the pain to subside so we can breathe, laugh and learn to love again. Lucinda brings all of this agony to life as the strings and the echoing guitars reflect the stages of dealing with the grief of being alone again. “Everything Has Changed” is a song that would fit perfectly in any of Lucinda’s albums of yesteryear, a southern soaked folk song that finds Lucinda singing, “I can’t find my joy anywhere.” Throughout the song she’s searching for the faith that she has lost, and as she sings, “everything has changed” you can feel her conviction.
“Come On” is a punky, country kiss off anthem, in which Lucinda sings over the electric riffs of Bill Frisell. This is one of the songs that the diehards may have trouble with. Lucinda has never sounded this bitter, and as she rages along with the organ and the banging drums, you can feel her smashing her former flame to bits: “I’m sorry I ever flirted/ the effort was even concerted/ you didn’t even make me come on.” I love the Scarlett Rivera-esque violin playing on “Where is My Love” by Williams stalwart Jenny Scheinman, which also echoes a Warren Ellis vibe as Lucinda sings “Is my love in Tupelo…knowing things he shouldn’t do/ and giving away what he can’t use.” Lucinda sings of all the places where she has been reflecting on all the loves that could have been. She searches for a love that is not there but lives in these verses like a bluesy prayer.
The end of West soars toward legendary. This is the part of the album where Lucinda is her most honest and brave, beginning with “Rescue,” which uses an E Street Band-like rhythmic backbeat, Scheinman’s violin carrying the song with her hopeful strings as they are matched by Frisell’s bluesy riffs. Williams’ vocals echo back to her as if she’s singing in a canyon or mountain edge, crooning to the heavens on how her man will never save her. “Wrap Your Head Around That” starts off with some studio chatter as Lucinda prepares to sing on her most musically ambitious track. Think of this as Southern trip-hop blues as Keltner’s drums keep the urban wasteland backbeat, while Williams speaks over Frisell’s free forming riffs. This is something that Wilner’s done before with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Reed; And now Lucinda continues the tradition of spoken word intensity that shines as she sings “I know what I think I saw/and what I thought I’d seen/ and what was coming and what was going/ and everything in between.” It’s a departure but a success.
“Words” has to be my favorite song on West. It’s Lucinda sounding her most delicate as she sings “I would rather suffer in sweet silent solitude…between the lips of your beautiful mouth.” I hear “Words” as the personifying how a writer sees his muse. Lucinda brilliantly brings inspiration to life when she sings so eloquently, “When my words enjoy the feel of the paper /better mingling with your consonants/ once they get going, they never waver/ and they slip in between your ifs, ands and buts.” The record ends perfectly with the title track, a reflective ode to a hopeful future as Lucinda sings “Who knows what the future holds/or the cards may fall…you’ll never know.” I hear this song and I think of driving down the old Route 66—it’s a tribute to traditional idea of California, of coming west to follow your heart and your dreams through the desert to the ocean.
West is the direction where Lucinda Williams is headed and where I live now, and fittingly, I can easily identify with its many themes. There is pain and heartache but there is also a sense of hope, a sound of freedom and rebirth in these songs. I never felt alone when I spent my first California Valentine’s Day along with Lucinda singing to me, because West is the sound of an artist in a creative rebirth. Lucinda Williams may have caught my ear back in New Orleans, but this year she captured my heart with her lyrical musings on this musical journey out West that will never expire.
Patty Griffin – Children Running Through
Joe Henry – Trampoline
Amy Rigby – Till the Wheels Fall Off