Nearly nine years have passed since Lucinda Williams earned her long-deserved commercial breakthrough with the classic “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” With that album, Williams established herself as one of America’s most important singer-songwriter-performers after years of toiling outside the limelight.
It was by no means an overnight success story. Prior to “Car Wheels,” her greatest achievements had been as a songwriter. Several artists, including Tom Petty, have covered her material, and Mary Chapin Carpenter had a sizable cross-genre hit with her recording of Williams' “Passionate Kisses.”
With “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”, Williams seized her own songs back, and became a critical favorite with her edgy mix of rock, blues and country, her drawling vocals, and wrenching lyrics. As a songwriter, Williams is nearly peerless. She has a gift for writing incisive lyrics that cut a direct path to the listener’s heart; every minute of her best work sounds utterly believable and real.
Williams' last two studio albums -- “Essence” and “A World Without Tears” -- were solid overall and had moments of brilliance but largely failed to live up to the lofty expectations set by “Car Wheels.” Her new album “West” in stores this week, is a strong return to form, and will assuredly excite fans who may have thought Williams had peaked years earlier.
“West” is a somber record, reflecting recent traumatic events in Williams' life. It’s a collection of songs exploring grief, loss, bitter anger and loneliness. Williams has always been at her most effective when reflecting on human emotion, and that is the focus on “West.” She leaves the political wrangling of her last album behind and instead turns inward and peers inside her soul.
There are a number of tracks that are destined to become Williams classics. “Are You Alright?,” the first single, is a brilliant opener. It paints all the grief and vulnerability of being left suddenly by a loved one with powerful clarity. “Learning to Live” has one of Williams' best vocal performances. Her distinctive world-weary rasp of a voice has never sounded finer. The track is potent lyrically, as it deals with a woman figuring out how to live by herself again after the end of a long relationship.
“Fancy Funeral” is a bleak but touching song which explores how we deal with loss and what’s important in saying goodbye. “Unsuffer Me” is another great, snarling vocal; it’s like a slower, bluesier version of “Essence” -- complete with a dramatic string arrangement, wicked guitar and absolutely beautiful Hammond organ flourishes. It goes on and on like Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their most ragged, and then sort of falls apart and fades away. Utterly brilliant.
“Come On” is pure Creedance Clearwater Revival-style slow, deep Southern rock, with Williams growling in her lower register before turning the track into a blues-rock shouter. Again, it has that classic Crazy Horse feel to it -- Williams clearly has been listening to her old Neil Young records. Lyrically, “Come On” is a bitter and audacious send-off to an ex-lover with razor-sharp lyrics that make Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” seem like vapid and petulant high-school whining. This isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day song, that much is certain.
The centerpiece of the album’s second half is “Wrap My Head Around That,” a rambling blues-shuffle that will sound absolutely hypnotic when played live. It has a funky, lean groove in the vein of Booker T. & the MG’s, and then escalates into a long, tight studio jam with some of the best guitar work on the album. It’s nearly nine minutes of seething anger, a bilious rant about -- again -- an ex-lover. Otherwise, the second half of the disk is generally mellow. “Rescue” is a gentle shuffle with a lovely, haunting melody. The finale is the title track, which has the same dreamy, late-night country feel that defined most of the “Essence” album. It’s a beautiful way to close an amazing record.
“West” is miles better than “Essence” or “A World Without Tears” -- it might not quite match “Car Wheels,” but the mere fact that it comes close is reason enough for Williams fans to rejoice. Had it been released a few weeks earlier, “West” would have been a strong contender for Best Album of 2006. As it is, Williams delivers the first truly great album of 2007 and reminds us once again why she is so universally revered.
“West” a long album, clocking in at over 70 minutes, and takes repeated listens to digest -- but it’s time well-spent. Those unfamiliar with Williams will find much to discover here, and long-time fans will welcome “West” with open arms. Highly recommended.