Folly’s Divide – ‘Blessed’ by Lucinda Williams
Review by Doug Heselgrave
Lucinda Williams closes the book on the past with her strongest album in years
The albatross has been lifted from her shoulders. When ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ came out in 1998, it was deservedly hailed as a masterpiece of modern country music and Lucinda Williams finally received the artistic recognition she deserved. Yet, success can be a double edged sword – after its incredible reception, the public expected another record just like ‘Car Wheels’, but Williams has never been an artist who has enjoyed repeating herself or conforming to people’s expectations. Still, the pressure must have been immense, so when ‘Essence’ came out a few years later in 2001, it disappointed many of her fans – which is a shame because years later the songs hold up surprisingly well. Lighter in tone and less biting musically, the lyrics dealt with love and maturing into life – rather than chronicling the missteps of the beautiful losers who previously dominated her best songs. ‘World Without Tears’ that followed in 2003 was a bit of a throwback as Lucinda dove right into the heart of darkness with heavy guitar drenched songs like “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar” and “Righteously” that gave listeners the pain and angst they’d come to expect from her. But, in light of her previous work, it was something of a disappointment as the guitar oriented sound didn’t serve the songs particularly well, nor were the over the top lyrics that struggled to outdo the perfect tragic short stories on ‘Car Wheels’ by opting for more shocking language and situations. In the end, ‘World Without Tears’ only succeeded in highlighting how good the songs on ‘Car Wheels’ and ‘Essence’ were and underscored the fact that Lucinda needed some new emotional ground and subject matter to cover if she was going to remain vital as an artist.
‘West’ followed in 2007 and it offered a much needed change in musical direction. By hiring famed producer, Hal Wilner and his stable of musicians including the phenomenal Bill Frisell to work with her on that effort, she succeeded in recording the most beautiful sounding album of her career. Full of tender odes to her recently deceased mother and meditations on middle age, songs like ‘Are you Alright’, ‘Where is my Love’ and ‘Fancy Funeral’ expanded on rather than duplicated her earlier work and offered hope that Williams’ muse was alive and well. Still, as good as ‘West’ was, it is best considered as a successful experiment and a sonic diversion from her main body of work. Songs like ‘Come On’ retreaded old stances and subject matter but were saved by the sound that she and Wilner created, proving that Lucinda had a deep musicality that transcended country music. But,‘West’s great sound hid the fact that the songs themselves sometimes offered very little that was new or lyrically challenging. The arrangements, scoring and performances were a little too careful and perfect to sustain Williams’ artistic energy and vision over the long haul. So, no one was surprised when ‘Little Honey’, the CD that followed ‘West’ was a loose, rough and tumble affair. Filled with songs about real love, stability and plans to marry, Williams was clearly at a crossroads on this album. Songs like ‘Jailhouse Tears’ and ‘Wishes Were Horses’ still dipped deeply into the swaggering well of rock and roll mythology and did little to add dimension to her overall body of work. In time it will likely be regarded as an enjoyable, but minor album in her canon.
That will never be said of ‘Blessed.’ Simply put, it is the first great release of Lucinda Williams’ personal and artistic maturity. A casual listen through the twelve songs might not reveal anything immediately new, but spend some time with this music and you’ll start to hear a slight shift in her perspective. Perhaps being happily married has given Lucinda the perspective and security with which to regard and assess her past life. ‘Blessed’ – as the title suggests – is a celebration of survival and rebirth and an acknowledgment that it’s never too late to change.
‘Blessed’ is a summing up of a life fully lived and an accounting of what brought Williams to the moment in time she finds herself in. The opening track ‘Buttercup’ is – in many ways – reminiscent of ‘Drunken Angel’ off of ‘Car Wheels’, but the shift in Lucinda’s perspective gives the song a depth of strength and understanding that was missing from the former song. One senses that Williams is happy to have made it this far, and the friend she sings of this time is not mythologized or made heroic in any way. With ‘Drunken Angel’ we felt the singer’s sadness, but never felt she’d moved away from the melodrama that made her subject a hero. She saw her subject’s faults, but still lived in a world where those faults were idealized. In ‘Buttercup’, the singer feels loss and pain deeply, but we never feel she’s going to take a downward slide and go back to the world she sings about. There is pain and regret, but no wistful nostalgia in these songs and that makes all the difference.
In other songs like ‘I don’t know how you live’, Williams sings again about lost lovers and figures from her past, but this time out she doesn’t wail or tread water in some desperate need to reconnect. Time passes. People disappear. That’s life. Feel it and move on, she seems to say. There are no cloying strings holding her to a past that she’s clearly moved beyond.
‘Blessed’ offers a new landscape for Lucinda Williams’ fans to enjoy. On one level, it is an album of sad goodbyes and an accounting of the ones around her who are left standing. The lyrics are full of mist, ghosts, and flashes of light that come to her as she stands on unfamiliar streets where people speak a lovely language she doesn’t understand. It’s the kind of place and experience that is enough to make a person run back to the familiar – however dysfunctional the familiar may be. But, for once Lucinda doesn’t do that. The love songs are thankful, vulnerable and completely without false bravado. She’s done with martyring herself to bad lovers and impossible situations. She sadly muses – ‘you have disappeared; you have been released’ in a hushed tone, but the undercurrent percolating beneath the phrase screams liberation.
With ‘Blessed’ Lucinda Williams has broken free from past constructs and expectations to release what is certainly her best album in years. I’ve only begun to appreciate the depths of this important work. It’ll keep me busy for months to come. I just wanted to get this out as quickly as possible and urge you to buy this record the day it comes out. It’ll be a long time before you need to go out and listen to another one.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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