By Mark Guarino
Bleak is beautiful on “West” (Lost Highway), the new album from Lucinda Williams, in stores today. That’s hardly news to anyone following her music from her earliest days as a folksy blues singer. Williams’ songs meticulously pick through the thorns of love, America style. Because she is a songwriter unlike no other, that means skipping the roses and chocolates and reporting on just the lusty beginnings and most sorrowful ends.
“West” is her only album since “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (Mercury), her Grammy smash from 1998, that stands up to such a storied output. With ambient master Hal Willner (Marianne Faithfull to Allen Ginsberg) at the helm, she is working with a producer who understands how to artfully accent the nuances of her lyrics with the precise slivers of sound. He is the reason for this album’s A-list ensemble of inventive players like jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Tony Garnier, keyboardist Rob Burger, string player Jenny Sheinman and others Willner recruited as musicians second and experimental stylists first.
Willner’s production style may be subtle but it never smoothes over the music’s jagged edge. On “Where Is My Love,” strings bend and Williams’ voice bares every scar. Make this a movie and it would be cast in black and white, the music darting in and out of shadows.
The story narratives of past albums get replaced by first-person confessionals that, in the hands of these players, resonate as powerful theater. “Unsuffer Me” sounds like it was recorded at the desert at sundown. Williams sings as if choked by dust as strings loom and a single guitar note quivers above as if walking a tightrope. A song never sounded so deadly and sexy at once.
Williams’ voice is particularly gnarled. On “Come On,” the album’s biggest rock moment, she scalds a former lover by blaring a repeated sexual innuendo. The quieter moments find her drained. On “Learning How To Live,” she sings of finding a way to go on after being abandoned even though the weariness in her voice tells us the chances are slim. “All I have left is this dime store ring/but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she sings.
At times, all that vulnerability blends into inertia. As the album nears its end, songs tend to follow the same sullen tempos. “Wrap My Head Around That,” a nine-minute electro-blues, is enough to set a trance, but void of any peaks or valleys, it crumbles into avant-garde noise.
The beauty of this album is when space and time shrink leaving just a few words to devastate. For a songwriter who treads the same heart-torn territory, album after album, she gives suffering comfort like it was the first time.