Of History and Hope
We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs.
—Miller Williams “Of History and Hope”
Lucinda Williams truly is one of the rarest of performers. So completely at home in her music, she’s somehow transcended both the division between artist and art, and the barrier between singer and audience. Like Elvis, Dylan, Lemmy, and some few handful of chosen others, she’s become something more than a mere performer, and created something beyond just music. Something uniquely lovely, sensual, and special. Something that speaks about America, about history, and about hope. Because no matter how rich her songs are with mourning, loneliness or grief, they still somehow resonate with beauty and with the confidence that life can indeed be sweet.
So yes, I’m a fan. And if you’d asked me a week ago if it was possible to separate this marvellous singer from her song, to strip her wounded, damaged, wonderful voice of its power to move me, and make the earth tremble, I’d've laughed in your face. But then came West. And with it came surprise and disappointment.
The way Lucinda Williams usually makes a record, I’m told, is to tour her new songs for a while, to demo them with her touring band, and then to polish, overdub, and re-polish those recordings until she’s happy with the results—which can sometimes take a while. This time, however, she decided to change her ways and instead took her original 2005 demos for West to New York producer Hal Willner, in search of something “mature yet hip”.
Somebody should probably tell Lucinda that mature is rarely hip.
Only Lucinda Williams’ original vocals and some of Doug Pettibone’s guitar have been retained from the touring band demos. Working with a studio full of musicians who have never played with Lucinda, and making a determined decision to bar pedal steel guitar from their sessions, Hal Willner has painstakingly shaped a brand new environment for her songs that could be described as sparse, subtle, and occasionally ambient. Unfortunately, it could also be described as cold, clinical, and completely lacking in any kind of vibrant spontaneity. And either way, West is certainly all but entirely divorced from Lucinda Williams’ natural heartland of heartfelt country, blues, and folk. And while that might have worked fine for the people who want something “mature yet hip” to provide background music for their polite little dinner parties, it sure as hell doesn’t work for me.
Listening to West, I’m forced finally to conclude something that should have been obvious from the start. Yes, Lucinda Williams has a magnificent voice. And yes, she writes marvellous songs. And yes, at least three (and probably more) of her records would make my personal top ten of all time. But much of the captivating emotional power she generates comes from the relationship between her voice and its musical setting. It’s like the circle of life, or a feedback loop, or something. Lucinda feeds off the musicians around her, they in turn feed off her, and everyone goes home sated and contented. With West, that circle has been broken.
Played live over the last few years, songs such as “Are You Alright”, “Learning How to Live”, and “Fancy Funeral” have all come across as largely thoughtful little country songs caught somewhere between Sweet Old World and World Without Tears, with an occasional Neil Young guitar solo or Burt Bacharach melody thrown in to keep us on our toes. The only way you could claim West lay halfway between any of Lucinda’s previous records is by invoking the alphabet.
On West, for example, the single and opening track, “Are You Alright” still spirals around Lucinda’s repetitive lyrical pattern but tones down the power of the chorus, entirely omits Pettibone’s original rippling guitar detail, and ends up sounding like something that might have been considered sophisticated in the boondocks sometime in the early ‘80s. “Learning How to Live” at least leans towards its original country arrangement, but the production is so calculated and sterile that it entirely fails to move me. And though “Fancy Funeral” is more minimal, and thus more effective, it still lacks the warm core of humanity that has fuelled Lucinda Williams’ previous recordings.
“Unsuffer Me” is the fifth song on West and the first to benefit from Willner’s work. Williams’ brooding passion and intense pain are elevated by Jenny Scheinman’s vaguely eastern string arrangement while a Hammond organ that could almost have been sampled from the Animals is mixed so distantly that it never becomes more than a mild irritant. Underpinned by a gently picked guitar, “Everything Has Changed” is a typical Lucinda song, she’s lost her Joy yet again and she can’t find it anywhere. Plus ga change… et cetera. Yet in this underwhelmingly tasteful setting, it seems like she’s lost a milk dud or a skittle down the back of her couch rather than her love, her faith, her sense of wonder, or her religion. It’s all very nice, but it’s just not very real.
“Come On” is far from nice. A cheap, crude joke dragged out over five minutes of solid blues rocking, some more of the Animals’ keyboards, and a whole heap of the most tired rhymes you’ll hear this side of a first grade poetry competition, Williams may have found “Come On” personally cathartic to write, but she really should’ve kept it to herself. I mean, “You can’t light my fire, so fuck off”?
I think I hear TIME calling, they want their “America’s best songwriter” headlines back.
Sadly, “Come On” may not even be the worst song on West. Let’s just say that if Lucinda Williams was being prosecuted for committing crimes against her own reputation with “Come On”, then even a tone-deaf lawyer would ask to have “What If” and “Wrap My Head Around That” both taken into account at sentencing. Having previously given Lucinda the benefit of the doubt for her prior offences in rap, I cannot forgive “Wrap My Head Around That”—nine (count them!) minutes of the clumsiest rapping ever over a homogenised, decaffeinated Talking Heads ‘80s blend. Meanwhile, “What If” is a nice melody, sadly spoiled by some more of those pesky first grade lyrics, that takes almost six minutes to say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was nice, and everyone was happy. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Let’s all hug.”
Fortunately, there are much better moments on West. “Where Is My Love?” opens with nicely judged strings and then evolves into a slice of classic Lucinda, combining both her Joy and her sense of geography over a meandering tune that dabbles first with a little touch of blues and then with a mild trace of polite jazz.
It would’ve been nice if “West” was the best song on West, since it closes an album rich with themes of disillusionment by looking… well… westward in hope, and somehow calls to mind that very fine song, “Wanderin’ Star”. But it isn’t. The best song on West is “Rescue”. Another of Lucinda’s quiet songs, and yet another of Willner’s inutterably deliberate arrangements, “Rescue” finds the singer talking to herself, telling herself that no man can rescue, protect, change, carry, save, or fix her. And that, by implication, she’s been looking for all the wrong things in all the wrong places.
Pain courses through every vein, every limb
Trying to find a way out between the secrets in my skin
—“Mama You Sweet”
“Mama You Sweet” is perhaps the best example of the trouble with West. A response to the death of the singer’s mother, it’s lyrically powerful, and constructed to a familiarly insistent pattern. It would have been magnificent on a record like Essence, but here on West it’s delivered with such tasteful and metronomic precision that it becomes a mere pale reflection of the song it should have been.
West is far from an awful record. But it could have been so much better. And as a Lucinda Williams record, as the first new work in three years from one of our finest performers and songwriters, it’s simply a disappointment. There’s too much artifice here, and too many second-rate songs. And somehow, unimaginably, this uniquely powerful singer too frequently sounds entirely out of place on her own record, as if her voice had been abandoned by Hal Willner’s musical choices. If Lucinda really wanted to try something new, to choose architecture over nature and science over organics, then she might have done better with those nice boys from Massive Attack.
Many people consider that the classic Lucinda record is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I was recently sent a copy of one of the early, alternate recordings of Car Wheels. Produced in Austin in 1995 by Gurf Morlix, it’s deeply interesting, and personable enough, but to someone who grew up with the “proper version”, the one that was finally released in 1998, it makes for curiously unsettling listening. West gives me a very similar sensation. With its antiseptic production and complete lack of warmth, and the subsequent disconnect between singer and song, I can’t yet listen to West without wondering when Lucinda’s going to release the proper version.
Perhaps Lucinda Williams should have taken a lesson from her own “Rescue”, because in her search for something “mature yet hip”, she seems to have forgotten that there’s nothing more mature, more hip, or indeed more totally happening than the magic that occurs when Lucinda Williams plays country. Pedal steel guitar and all.