Lucinda Williams – Setting the record straight
In a 1986 article about Delta blues singer Robert Johnson, Greil Marcus observed that blues was music born not of enslavement, but of liberation. “For the first time,” he wrote, “[blacks] were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.” Such is the struggle that plays itself out in “Phonograph Blues” and “Stones In My Passway”, songs that find Johnson wrecked by pent-up longing. And yet as “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” attests, the bluesman never quite surrendered to the obstacles in his path, even if the only moments of transcendence he enjoyed were imaginary or came through music.
Although socially and historically far removed from the world of Robert Johnson, Lucinda Williams’ “Changed The Locks” is as surreal and defiant an expression of the desire to master one’s fate as “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”. Desperate to keep her estranged lover from her, Williams puts new locks on her door, changes her phone number, buys new clothes, starts driving a different car. But none of these things give her the peace of mind she seeks. Dauntless, she proceeds to alter the larger public domain around her. By sheer force of will, she re-routes the railroad tracks that run through town and, in a stroke that’s as brilliant as it is absurd, renames the town itself. Detonated by the thunder of drums that closes the song, “Changed The Locks” doesn’t just scale the wall that separates desire from its realization, it brings that wall crashing to the ground.
Williams displayed this relentless spirit at a gig last September at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe when, midway through the first stanza of “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road”, she waved her band off in disgust. “That’s not right,” she winced, recoiling from the mike. “It’s too slow.” Then, harnessing her anger, she added, “I’ll start it this time.” It was only after she plunged headlong into the song, her band in tow, that the crowd of 100 or so crammed into the club finally let out its breath.
This refusal to compromise — this fierce desire to get things right, no matter what the cost — is arguably the hallmark of Williams’ brilliant yet stammering career. It accounts for her impatience with such songwriterly formulae as rhyme schemes and for the way she diligently rids her lyrics of cliches. It explains why her last two albums have such emotional resonance. And yet it’s also the reason six years have passed between her last album, 1992’s Sweet Old World, and her new one, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, released June 30 on Mercury Records.
“I don’t know if I can make a record that I feel totally 100 percent right about,” admits Williams over beer and Thai food at Nashville’s Siam Cafe. “I would love to have that feeling but I have never had that feeling, and I still don’t have that feeling.
“But I don’t want to get into that too much,” she continues, “because I’m already accused of being a demanding perfectionist. If I even say anything at all, such as ‘I’m not sure about this one song,’ then people are gonna say, ‘See, there she goes. She’s getting into that whole perfectionist thing again.'”
Considering the lengths to which Williams has gone to make Car Wheels — lengths as Heraclean, in some respects, as those detailed in “Changed The Locks” — it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume as much.
Williams began showcasing material for the project during the winter of 19945. She then recorded the album with her longtime guitarist and co-producer Gurf Morlix in Austin in February and March of 1995. (Ian McLagan, formerly of the Faces, engineered and played organ on the sessions.) But after singing on Steve Earle’s “You’re Still Standin’ There” — and being knocked out by Ray Kennedy’s production of the song — Williams decided to scrap what she’d done with Morlix in favor of working with Kennedy and Earle.
Backed by her regular band, including Morlix, Williams re-cut Car Wheels in Nashville during the summer of 1996. Then she and Earle hit an impasse. After Earle walked out on the nearly-finished sessions (he cites Williams’ indecisiveness and his busy schedule as reasons), Williams took the Nashville mixes to Los Angeles, where E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan added organ and accordion to eight tracks. Bittan also overdubbed the guitar parts of Charlie Sexton, Greg Leisz, Buddy Miller, and sometime Bonnie Raitt sideman Johnny Lee Schell. Then, using the roughs from Nashville and L.A., Rick Rubin and Jim Scott mixed the entire project in L.A. except “Metal Firecracker”, which Ray Kennedy mixed in Nashville.
Meanwhile, reports of the album’s imminent release circulated in the press, by word of mouth, and on the Internet. Fans, critics and biz-watchers grew impatient. Most were just eager to hear studio versions of songs that Williams had played live for the past few years. Others were less forgiving. The record’s release date became a running joke on America Online’s No Depression message board. A contributor to Request magazine’s annual critics’ poll went so far as to dub Williams “Tease of the Year.” More devastating, though, was a September 1997 cover story in The New York Times Magazine that portrayed Williams as a nut-case who couldn’t bring the project to closure. To add insult to injury, the Times piece included a quote in which Williams’ new manager, Frank Callari, likened her to “a bowl of cornflakes.”
Not even when changes at Williams’ label, American Recordings, further delayed the album’s release did people cut her much slack. Although few actually knew what went on behind the scenes, some were starting to talk about Williams as much for what she hadn’t delivered as for the lasting music she’s made. It didn’t help that her detractors kept pointing out that she had also recorded, abandoned, and re-recorded her previous album, Sweet Old World. Indeed, many of those who shouted a resounding “no” when Williams first sang “Do I want too much, am I going overboard” on “Passionate Kisses” weren’t so sure anymore.
“It makes me look bad,” an embattled Williams said last summer. “People think I’m never satisfied with anything. And maybe I am a bit demanding. But I don’t think I should have to defend myself. All that should matter is the quality of my records.”