We're off the highway. We were four songs in when suddenly this ugly metal guitar appeared, and now vegetation's flying past the car and dead bugs are encrusting on the windscreen. I glance over at Lucinda. She's driving. She has been here before: I can see that from the hard set of her face. This has to be done, she is probably thinking. We'll be back on the road soon; the next song won't have this guitar on it. For a while, though, we're taking the path less travelled.
Lucinda Williams is that kind of artist, and on West we'll be back here three times, each time deeper and wilder than the last. On the final visit - the nine-minute ‘Wrap My Head Around That', a song of unremitting spite and pain - it will seem as if we're never going to get back to the highway at all.
The album starts with the laying down of four cards: a deliberate placement of four strong songs, bringing in the album's themes - a relationship break-up and the death of her mother - and showcasing her strengths. They are: a voice second to none on the roots-music scene, and song-writing that embraces the confessional side of country music, while skirting or directly challenging its forms. You could almost call the beginning of the album a mischievous lulling, because with the arrival of the fifth song, ‘Unsuffer Me', it's as if a curtain is pulled back and we are shown a whole other area that the album wants to get into. Lyrically it's far tougher and unconventional, and it's matched with a meatier sound. Williams wants to go there, but it sets up a split on the album that its 68 minutes will struggle to contain.
West is Williams' eighth album of original music in a recording career that stretches back to the late '70s. She is a big artist, and the stepping-stone spacing of her releases over the years suggests that they come out only when she has something to say. She's won a Grammy, has a reputation for total integrity, and has a devoted roots fan-base. Her sound, which she always pays great attention to, has stayed close to the historical roots of her influences: country, blues, folk, melodic rock, Dylan and the scattered edges of alternate country.
For West, she recorded in LA with the New York producer Hal Willner. He is an all-round facilitator who was recently in Australia working with Lou Reed on the Berlin project, for the Sydney Festival. He produced Marianne Faithfull's Stormy Weather (1987), is the long-time music supervisor for the US television show Saturday Night Live, and has produced tribute concerts for Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley. Williams has said that she was searching for a sound that is "mature, but hip". Hal Willner is that.
Williams is an intriguing songwriter. Her melodies are often minimal in a way that is shocking even for country or roots music. It's as if, in the determined slow strumming of familiar chord patterns, she is looking for holes or for overlooked smaller melodies that she will build her songs on. Her delicate but scraped voice helps here: she knows its value and its ability to carry tiny wonders. Nor are her songs exclusively two-note mantras. She is capable of turning out fine, well-crafted choruses that bloom out of stately verses. Her songs contain no middle eights, a third melody often used as a device for harmonic diversity. Williams keeps it tight and clean, nodding to old tunes and old ways, knowing she has other valuable tricks tucked away in her art.
One is song structure. If you want cookie-cutter songs, as the great Texan singer-songwriter Guy Clark calls them, you won't find them here. There is not a song on this album that fits the verse-chorus swap of conventional song-writing. ‘Mama You Sweet' starts with the chorus, is followed by nine verses, and then finishes with the chorus. ‘Fancy Funeral' and ‘Words' both have six verses and no chorus. ‘West' is three verses, chorus, three verses, chorus, and then one verse. These are unusual patterns, and the lack of quick-changing melody could suggest that tunes may not be her strong point - but she works this into an advantage, and by welding blocks of beautifully written verses together, she develops a style.
These stacked verses give her all the space she needs to sing what she has to say. Her words are simple, sparse on the page, but arranged with the poet's eye. Nothing is sloppy or unfinished; even when she dips into cliché, it's finely put and always poignant. She works with repetition, singing while ruminating on the thoughts that spiral through her mind, so her work has great intimacy and rhythm as she circles her song ideas. The titles, generic and worn, mirror each big thought: ‘Everything Has Changed', ‘Learning How to Live', ‘Are You Alright?' She is capable of longer, freer lines ("From the wonder I had a sense of to the brightest star that shone") and homespun, evocative verses ("Is my love in Birmingham / Making honey from the bees / Overjoyed to be my man / Rolling up his flannel sleeves").
Where she is not in control is in the shape of the album. She's written eight or nine good songs; three or four of them are very good. And together, they would constitute a record - not a career-best, but a fine collection in one mood. It would be slow, kind of mellow, dealing with the more wistful and traditional side of things in describing the end of a relationship. Williams has obviously stared that album down, and decided it would be too partial a shot of how she is feeling. So she's broadened the scope to include her anger, her need for revenge, and a desperate call for new love. Which is fine, but no one seems to have calculated what these songs will do to the album's running time or - given their fierce rock sounds - what they might do to its unity.
The proof of this is in the pacing. For the gentler tracks, Willner has set up a nice production sound, shuffley and ambient, redolent of the work of Daniel Lanois. It allows one-minute fade-outs, and longish instrumental sections in the middle of songs. The feeling is of having time on one's hands, but when track 11 comes around, it's more than nine minutes long and will push the album well beyond an hour. You have to wonder what was or wasn't said between producer and artist in pre-production. And things unfortunately aren't helped by the song itself. ‘Wrap My Head Around That' is a torpedo aimed straight at the album's hull, probably shot intentionally by Williams. She can't help it, and Willner is powerless to stop her. So they both get what they want. She gets her anger; he gets to give the musicians, whom he thanks for "the thousands of goose bumps", an inordinate amount of time to shine.
‘Unsuffer Me', the first of three heavy songs, is a sign of what's to come. As with the other two, the production tries unnecessarily to mirror William's venting of rawer feelings. Creeping effects-laden guitars growl and wail, and the snare drum leaps in the mix, to greet "Come into my world / Of loneliness /Of wickedness / And bitterness". Two songs later, the sound is back for the sexual punning of ‘Come On' ("You can't light my fire so fuck off / You didn't even make me, come on!"). What surprises is Willner's approach; it's not clear whether he tried and then junked the idea of flipping the production and going quiet behind Williams' rage. In any case, the sad match-up of LA-rock sound with attempted rock attitude is uninspired.
West ends with its title track. Here is the sunset, a warm strummed song of hope, an invitation to a new lover to see her in her natural world: the West. Hearing the ache and beauty, you immediately feel that this is what she does best. Not that she should leave the rock songs behind; it's just that they need to be better. Personal circumstances and a fierce artistic temperament have served Lucinda Williams magnificently in the past, but have forced one or two false moves here. She should work again with Hal Willner, and with a new man to inspire songs, see how far that will take her down the highway.
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