[27 February 2011]
Singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams’ discography spans ten studio albums over three decades and several musical styles. As Chris Klimek wrote a few years ago in a Washington Post concert review, “she’s a little Hank Williams, a little John Coltrane, a little Chet Baker and a little Loretta Lynn.” Those comparisons are on point, but she is also much more than the sum of her influences. She more or less spelled out what she does best in the title of her first album of original songs, 1980’s Happy Woman Blues. Her momentum as an artist is fueled by emotional peaks and valleys, and the little moments and long years across which they unfold. Often, the ideal way to receive her work is as a document of where life has taken her in the years since we last heard from her.
Although her two most recent studio releases, West (2007) and Little Honey (2008), seemed a little less lived-in, somehow less inspired than her work of the 1990s and early part of the last decade, she returns to fine form on Blessed. Produced by Don Was, Blessed is a many-textured album. Goodbye lover-number “Buttercup” begins the album in a disarmingly familiar fashion, its electric guitars and commanding vocal delivery direct descendants of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998). Yet we’ve very little time to settle into her confident assertions, because “Don’t Know How You’re Living” outlines the sacrifices she’s made on behalf of the song’s unnamed “you”. She is vulnerable and hurt, but pledges to continue her support. In the space of two consecutive songs, Williams, Was, and the band chart out the range of a happy woman’s blues.
One key to Williams’ approach that unites the polarity of upbeat and downbeat numbers is her use of lyrical repetition. Fundamental to the blues style, the repetition of lines across bars is sometimes merely mechanical, but Williams’ mantras expand in meaning as her songs develop. The phrases “You weren’t born to…” and “You were born to…” create the lyrical structure for “To Be Loved”, finding a purpose for life somewhere in between the expressions of pain and pleasure that finish each sentence. In this song, all roads lead to love. In “Kiss Like Your Kiss”, the word “never” comes up again and again, describing the ephemeral nature of certain pleasures, especially the colors and sensations of seasons. All of these culminate with “there’ll never be a kiss like your kiss”. Here “never” takes on a positive value—an appreciation of present blessings, as they are not guaranteed to last.
“Seeing Black” is another song that hopes to appreciate and preserve life, but the results are less optimistic. Written to Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas Day 2009 (and who once wrote a song called “Lucinda Williams”), “Seeing Black” is faster in pace and more electric in execution than most other songs on Blessed. The song uses a color spectrum (seeing black, red, white) to take the listener on a trip through Chesnutt’s final thoughts and feelings. Accompanying this synesthesia is a wild guitar solo by Elvis Costello. This is not the kind of tribute one might expect, but its energy expresses the anger and disappointment of the living, left behind by the departed.
The two songs that most define the album are “Soldier’s Song” and the title track, which rest side by side in the middle of the sequence. Set to a deceptively peaceful-sounding acoustic guitar, “Soldier’s Song” tells the story of a soldier at war and of his family back home. He questions why he’s in “this God-forsaken place” where he doesn’t “know [my] enemy’s name” while his beloved family goes through the motions far away. Like PJ Harvey’s war-focused Let England Shake, “Soldier’s Song” is specific and poignant but not overly polemical. Then there is “Blessed”, the title track and conceptual springboard for the album. Although much of Williams’ writing (such as “Kiss Like Your Kiss”) draws the listener’s attention to good things large and small, “Blessed” focuses on the people behind blessings. Represented in her litany of people who’ve blessed her/us are the “the neglected child who knew how to forgive”, “the battered woman who didn’t seek revenge”, “the blind man who could see for miles and miles”, and “the soldier who gave up his life”.
On her website, Williams is offering a series of videos, “individual testimonials of what it means to be ‘BLESSED’”. These short, interview-based documentaries with Los Angeles residents are a wonderful companion to the lyrics and album artwork, all of which encourage discovering blessings in unlikely and overlooked sources. Blessed, like Williams’ best efforts, finds the blessings within the blues.