Whisky music, beer music, wine music. If you’ve come across Lucinda before, you’ll know which one this album is. She says she wrote it at her kitchen table in California but you can’t really imagine her sitting at a kitchen table. Or in California. On beds in musty, stained mid-West motel rooms, on stools in deep blue Southern bars, in beat-up Chevys in the dusty Badlands, bottle in hand, yeah, you can imagine that: sitting there, broodingly, waiting, lost but still emotionally predatory. And you can imagine her- yeah- struggling to her feet, beaten and bloodied but on the move again, off on the endless search, guitar-on-back, lusting, yearning . . .
The mostly wonderful Car Wheels On A Gravel Road – hurt, occasionally over-produced country-blues with a hard, rough-clever, suffocatingly sexual and misanthropic edge – grabbed a huge crossover audience by the balls a few years ago and twisted them: simple, but ultimately- given the power of her demons – unsatisfying revenge for a life of personal breakdown and pain and three decades of respect without commercial success. The surer, slightly smokier, less cluttered, more blue/less black stuff since CWOAGR- up to and including her last, World Without Tears, four years ago- have confirmed her as one of the great iconoclasts of off-road Americana. Whether you actually look forward to listening to another Lucinda Williams album- particularly in the knowledge that, in the last couple of years, she’s lost her Mum and another relationship with another bastard has dripped bloodily and noisily down the plughole- is another matter.
And that feeling of apprehension is borne out here, at times: Katie Melua she ain’t. Though rarely as overtly sexual- and defiantly less sensual- than on previous albums, West is- mostly- the sound of a scarred fifty-something woman bearing all and, when it works, the Faithfull-throaty croak, Bill Frisell’s sympathetic guitar, Hal Willner’s production and the perfect violin and organ and percussion are magical. When it doesn’t, it can all feel a bit oppressive and/or forgettable.
It really is- at times- harsh, uncompromising and exhausting to listen to: the vacuum at Lucinda’s core sucks you into a bleak blackness that can feel overwhelming. The relatively upbeat Mama You Sweet’s ‘tears that ebb and flow’, its cries to hear ‘the pain in my soul’ are unrelentingly stark and upfront in their heart-on-sleeveness; the back-to-her-Louisiana-roots I Can’t Feel My Love Anymore is as straight and powerful and despairing a sung exposition of the crushed post-break-up depression and irrevocable hopelessness of loss as you’ll come across; Learning How To Live is resigned, frantically philosophical, with an undertow of bitterness that piano and voice take up, gentle harmonies emphasising the inescapable universality of the pain.
Across much of the album, her slurred, cracked, rasping, mumbling voice pricks you with its weariness. Seductive at times, at others it can get claustrophobic. Even the superficially fluffy touchy-feely empathy of opener Are You Alright?- beautifully bolstered and grown from its spare beginnings by drum and organ and guitar- has an edge- accusatory and forlorn- which becomes insistent and pleading. Come On’s ‘I’m so over you’ is all faux-withering put-down and eviscerating expose of the emotional and sexual inadequacy of her ex, a little too riffy-rocky, a little too obvious- ‘You can’t light my fire, so fuck off’. (And is that the Layla riff and church bells in the fade-out or had all the pain and rage got to me?) Unsuffer Me, meanwhile, is breathless, moaning Catholic agony/ecstasy wrapped up in harsh chords and insistent drums- ‘unbound my feet, untie my wrists’ as chilly guitars try and ‘wash away the stain': ‘I long for knowledge, whisper in my ear, undo my logic, undo my fear.’ Like a musical Ecstasy of St Theresa, you wonder what on earth is going on. If Nick Cave was a woman . . .
Where there’s relief from this emotional storm, though, things can feel slight, whimsical, incongruous: Where Is My Love? is bland, the emotion lost, cloudy; Words- despite its glorious accordion break- has poet’s daughter Lucinda clinging hard- and a little unconvincingly- onto the ‘phrases . . . frozen and still’ that won’t- unlike people- abandon her, let her down, hurt her. And the closer, West, an optimistic (for her), seemingly redemptive love-song- ‘who knows what the future holds?’- feels tacked-on, a self-conscious attempt to divert from all the pain.
Ah, but then, when she’s good, she’s without equal:
Fancy Funeral is a Nebraska-era Springsteen song filtered through the pain of all the women Springsteen’s male heroes abandoned in their Romantic quest for the Promised LAnd. It’s country music- more than anything else here- but/and its relative musical lightness, its melodic sweep, offers it more power, its emotion far rawer and truer than the more overblown stuff here. The slowed-up bluegrass float of Everything Has Changed is similarly beautiful and tearing; Rescue’s Emmylou-like ‘He can’t protect you’ is warm and neat and flowing arm-round-the-shoulder advice, ending with a (odd) ‘la, la, la, la, la’ from Lucinda.
But it’s two magnificent (and very different) songs- each compelling, each questioning, each strangely unsettling- which offer The Great Moments here. What If is skewed, challenging, familiar, redolent of Neil and Bob and Jackson, Lucinda casting herself as poetic dreamer- the idealist who’s learnt the price of everything, holding on to the value of something- reaching out, apocalyptic, dystopian/utopian and heartbreakingly childlike, culminating with the question ‘what would happen if we loved one another in equal amounts?’. Wrap My Head Around That- the most bluesy/soully thing here- is nine minutes- nine fucking minutes- of Lucinda going on, exquisitely; it feels a bit like being stuck, paralysed, in a swamp, while you’re berated for weeks, then shagged for weeks by a mad, gorgeous woman you’ve never met before and a band of angels and devils play an old Stones song endlessly, on and on and on. Sarcy, sassy and mightily sexy, her half-spoken accusations make you want to scream ‘sorry, Lucinda!’ . . . and then spend the rest of your life with her.
So she’s still roaming, still uncertain, still vengeful: despite the title track, a permanent domesticity looks unlikely and, on balance, Lucinda’s pain is our pleasure. Is it OK to hope her new relationship- she’s engaged, apparently- fucks up fairly soon . . . and the bloke gets custody of the kitchen table?
Release date: 19/02/07
Artist website: www.lucindawilliams.com
Label: Lost Highway Records