Lucinda Williams – Chimes of freedom
Freedom is a look in the eyes, a tone of voice…and it is that flash of freedom that you want to capture….
Freedom is not conferred, nor can it be bought, it is your awareness of life….It can only be won by transcending the restrictions that are imposed on you by others….
Freedom can be manifested in suffering and grief, as long as one does not allow oneself to be crushed by it. Even while immersed in suffering and grief, one can still observe, so there can still be freedom in suffering and grief. You need the freedom to suffer and the freedom to grieve, so that life will be worth living. It is this freedom that brings you happiness and peace.
— Gao Xingjian, One Man’s Bible
Tryin’ hard to be a happy woman,
But sometimes life just overcomes me
— Lucinda Williams, “Happy Woman Blues”
Plenty of musicians inspire devotion. Lucinda Williams, however, is different. Critics go into raptures over her, especially men, who are forever scrambling, like suitors, to outdo each other. Fans lay claim to her with equal fervor. Her swelling tide of acolytes too; for a growing number of literary, emotionally forthright singer-songwriters, Lucinda has emerged as an archetype, the roots music equivalent of what, in fiction circles, Raymond Carver has been to a generation of North American minimalists.
Uniting all of her admirers is the intensity of their stake in her music, an almost possessive investment that elicits vociferous, even rival, claims of fealty. Mine is being able to say that I’ve seen Lucinda play live twice as often as I’ve seen anyone else. Yours might be bragging rights to owning versions of every iteration of the albums that, after leaving a trail of record labels and producers strewn in their wake, became Sweet Old World and Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.
Whatever our claims on her, we all scrutinize Lucinda, from the company she keeps to her set lists to her works in progress. And we all have ideas about the kinds of records she should be making (Car Wheels II?) and when (yesterday!) she should stop obsessing over them and let us decide.
Not that she doesn’t put herself through the wringer. The paralysis induced by her perfectionism is epic, a self-surpassing ethic-cum-aesthetic that has agonizingly played itself out in the studio and onstage. The story now is as much about Lucinda — the breakthroughs, the fan frustrations and critical backlashes, the glorious mess of it all — as it is about her music.
She might never become a Marilyn- or Elvis-like icon along the lines of Madonna, but in the semi-popular universe of Americana roots music, Lucinda — no need for a surname at this point, and just plain “Lu” to many — is no less a metaphysic unto herself. She’s as much a person turned idea as anything else, a construct that we not only presume to comprehend but onto which we project our cherished notions of art and authenticity.
The attention, though heady and sought after, can be oppressive, and doubtless will continue to be so with the January release of West (Lost Highway), her most adventurous album yet. Intimations of the conflict this pressure breeds could be heard as early as 1980, when as a relative unknown, Lucinda recorded Happy Woman Blues, her first collection of original material. “I just want to live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it,” she sings on an early take of “I Lost It”. “Never take nothin’ don’t belong to me/Everything’s paid for, nothin’s free,” she goes on, before pressing, “If I give my heart, will you promise not break it?”
Songs such as “Joy” and “Changed The Locks” might have been born of romantic dissolution, but over the years they’ve become emblems of this larger struggle, Lucinda’s serrated vocals and her band’s obdurate rhythms lending it flesh, especially live, where the music often reaches transcendent heights. “Joy” is the leonine cry of emotional and spiritual abandonment, “Changed The Locks” the reality-altering assertion of imagination and will that enables her to take that joy back. Both are worthy of Skip James or Robert Johnson.
After the arduous birthing of Car Wheels, though, Lucinda increasingly began to reconcile this drive to be free of and free to be. Juggling demands and expectations, both hers and those of others, seemed to grow less onerous for her. The whimsical, effusive mood that attended her live shows certainly attested as much. Likewise the playful, seemingly throwaway rhymes and hip-hop argot/rhyming she scattered throughout 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears.
This is to say nothing of the liberties with English grammar she’s taken, or of her interpolation of snatches of melodies from other sources. Most telling perhaps is the clip at which she’s cranked out her last four albums, including 2005’s Live At The Fillmore. Lucinda put out just a handful of LPs during her first 20 years as a recording artist; with the appearance in January of West, she will have released four in half that time. Five, if you count the double live set as two, and by all accounts West, which contains barely half of the 24 tracks she demoed for the project (and clocks in at just under 70 minutes), could have been a double too.
Do these later, less obsessive records approximate the majesty of Car Wheels or her self-titled record for Rough Trade? At their best, yes, and critics who offered middling assessments of Essence and World Without Tears would do well to revisit both. But these aren’t the kinds of questions that vex Lucinda anymore.
Well, not as much as they once did. “I still get affected by what people say,” she said by phone from her home in Los Angeles on the eve of Thanksgiving. “But you sort of can’t win for losing. You can’t please everybody.”
Easier said than done, perhaps. Still, for unequivocal evidence of the new, unfettered Lucinda, we need look no further than West, its title (as the record’s thirteen tracks reveal) referring as much to a locale as an outlook, a less inhibited way of being in the world.