Even the most cursory fan of Lucinda Williams is aware of how intimately familiar the Southern songstress is with pain.
If you thought World Without Tears was rough, the near-unrelenting bleakness of the emotional landscape Williams paints on West, her eighth studio album, out today, may seem like too much of the same.
Fortunately, the alt-country singer-songwriters gifts of soul mining are so acute that the songs inspired by her mothers passing and a wrenching breakup enrich as well as exhaust, and engender cautious optimism.
Williams has a canny partner in coproducer Hal Wilner. He puts her vocals front and center, so that her tasteful backing band sounds almost as if its playing at a distance. The effect underscores how close she is to her heartache. Sometimes Williams sings with an open-wound quiver, other times with the detachment of the depressive, but the music from light acoustic picking to fierce electric squalls always reinforces the mood.
A high-strung guitar jangle and simple trot rhythm emphasize the concern of the opener, Are You Alright, in which Williams worries about someone who has vanished from her life. A snare rolls like a tumbleweed through the dry and dusty imagery of the heartwrenching Mama You Sweet; in the wake of her mothers death, Williams sings of feeling cracked and burdened like the sun-baked earth, even as pain courses through her veins and tears run from her eyes. Perhaps saddest of all is Everything Has Changed, in which Williams contemplates how geography itself seems to shift in the aftershocks of romantic earthquakes. I cant feel my love anymore, she murmurs, with utter bereftness.
Even so, the Mississippi native hasnt completely lost her sense of humor, spunk, or sensuality. The frayed vocals and noirish guitars of Unsuffer Me are surprisingly sultry. In the light swing of Learning How to Live, there is a sense of self-nurturing as she resolves, Ill make the most of what you left me with. And on the Neil Young-style electric guitar stomper Come On, she lambastes a former mates less-than-satisfying lovemaking abilities. Im sorry I ever flirted, the effort wasnt even concerted, she snarls. Its funny, sad, angry, and rocking all at once and offers a different kind of catharsis from the rest of the album. This is the song for the dish-throwing phase of the breakup.
Williams ends the album with a welcome blast of hope on the title track. She beseeches a lover to come out West to seek his romantic fortune, singing gently, Who knows what the future holds, or where the cards may fall. But if you dont come out West and see, youll never know at all.
Considering the torrent of emotions in the preceding songs, its difficult not to feel protective of Williams as she again begins counting down the days to the arrival of a new, maybe true, love. Is she on her way to another album just as punishing in its bruised beauty? Or will she find her way to a lighter heart? Creatively and emotionally, wed love to see her split the difference.