A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME!
Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway, 2007) B+
LIKE most major artists who have something relevant to say, Lucinda Williams has evolved over the years. In 1988, the shy, introspective 35 year old alt-country phenom from Lake Charles, Louisiana, arrived on the music scene and through sheer courage and strength of will propelled her self-titled debut into the best kept secret in pop music since Gram Parsons bumped Roger McGuinn from the Byrds, spawning in the process two of the best country hits never to hit number one in Nashville: "The Night's Too Long" and "Passionate Kisses."
Undaunted by the lack of airplay, she toured relentlessly over the next few years, and when she was finally ready, she released the beautiful, if dark, Sweet Old World. Williams’ perfectionism, her unwillingness to allow anything with her name on it to go out until she was completely satisfied, was a refreshing change of pace in an industry that spits out albums like bird seed in a pet store. Like the former album, once again airplay was sparse. But, over the years, Williams had developed a huge and loyal following of fans who came to admire and respect the principals she espoused in her songs. The nakedness of her singing, coupled with her ability to transcend pain into joy, to find something hopeful even when things don't often seem to be going your way may not have been what the record bizers wanted to hear, but the critics fell in love with her. Call her stubborn, but don't call her pretentious!
But it was 1998’s stunning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road that finally brought her the recognition she so richly deserved. She won the grammy for best contemporary folk album the following year, and almost overnight her fan base doubled then tripled. Like it or not, she was now following in the grand tradition of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, with all the baggage that went along with it. No longer the best-kept secret among the alt-country scene, she was now among the most recognizable faces, not only of her genre, but in pop music in general.
Critics waited to see how she would handle it. They didn’t have to wait long. The next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, saw an artist being pulled toward compromise but never consumed by it. Both albums were easily her most accessible since her debut, but neither pushed the envelope in the way Car Wheels had. She was still the best at her craft, the best at letting her audience in to see her world, but now the engine that propelled her music was taking a fast lane. As Robert Christgau succinctly pointed out, “Like Dylan before her, she discovers how hard it is to write the simple ones.” Success hadn’t spoiled her, nor dulled her pen, put it did put a crimp in her style, which was always far more private than any of her fans or peers could have realized. The sweet old world she loved so much had gotten considerably smaller and a bit tarnished.
No wonder she took the next three years off before heading back to the studio to cut her next and latest album. Let’s cut right to the chase; West is nothing like she has ever recorded. It’s as different from her last two albums as Car Wheels was from Sweet Old World. But then that has always been Williams’ modus operandi. Familiarity and continuity are qualities she has never aspired to. Rather than try and reinvent past successes, she opts instead to reinvent herself. She can’t help but veer off in new directions; you could say it’s what’s kept her from falling victim to the same disease that has plagued lesser artists.
In past albums, however, Williams’ music, and more to the point, her words always drew you in, no matter how rustic they sounded. There was an attractiveness and charm to her songs that carried the listener regardless of the subject matter. West is about as unattractive and charmless an album as she has ever attempted. Not that attractiveness and charm are necessary ingredients to artistic integrity. Some of the greatest artworks are ugly, when they’re not down-right offensive. Maybe that is the problem. The album is neither attractive nor ugly. Robert Christgau has called it dull; I disagree. But it is, to put it mildly, uninvolving, even distant. I have played it three times, and still don’t know quite what to make of it. And there in lies the problem. Nothing on West leaps out and grabs you. Sure she can still write better than just about anybody out there, with the exception of Dylan, and maybe Amy Rigby, but I find myself too often straining to find significance or meaning in her lyrical landscape. I find myself respecting the songs more than enjoying them. Sure “Are You Alright” is a great song – one of her best ever, but Williams can’t build off of it. She seems mired in technique rather than the gut instinct, which has historically served her so well.
On the whole, the album passes muster, but more on talent than on delivery. Lucinda Williams is still one of the finest singer/songwriters of hers or any generation. That West will not be included among her finest albums, probably says more about her past achievements and the subsequent expectations they set for us and for her, than for any specific short-comings the album itself may have. Bruce Springsteen had similar triumphs and disappointments. Between 1973 and 1987, he released his three best albums, one of which - Born in the USA - was among the finest rock albums ever. However, he also released Greetings From Asbury Park and Darkness on the Edge of Town, proof that even the great ones are capable of pedestrian efforts. If West turns out to be Williams' Darkness, well that's fine with me. Like Springsteen, it just proves she's only human after all.