A Musical Statement of Significance: Lucinda Williams, West

By Daniel Garrett

Lucinda Williams, West
Produced by Hal Wilner and Lucinda Williams
Lost Highway/UMG Recordings, 2007

There are ordinary worries we might have for a loved one—“Are you sleeping through the night? Do you have someone to hold you tight”—and Lucinda Williams puts them, very simply, into song in “Are You Alright?,” the opening song of Lucinda Williams’s album West. Suggesting that music—or art—is an extension of love never gets old; and Lucinda Williams’s singing sounds natural, and the music—with Rob Burger on piano, Doug Pettibone and Bill Frissell on guitars, and Jim Keltner on drums—is equal to her singing, a cordial complement. West is a significant musical statement; and it is more impressive for arriving at its significance by unusual directions, such as in the songs “Mama You Sweet” and “Unsuffer Me” and “What If” and “Wrap My Head Around That.”

“I love you Mama, you sweet,” sounds like the remembered declaration of a long-ago child. That Lucinda Williams gives this remarkably direct refrain to one of her most complex lyrics, lyrics that are metaphorical and personal, is an intriguing fact. In “Mama You Sweet,” Williams describes a significant spiritual range and its rough terrain, its burdens (“pain courses through every vein, every limb, trying to find a way out, between the secrets in my skin”). Lucinda Williams combines the spiritual and the physical for an elaborate metaphor that lasts nearly the whole song, a song with a gently rocking rhythm akin to a lullaby or bedtime story, a song that brings tears to the eyes and also inspires the attempt to sing along (the song feels like one’s own). It is the song I remember most from West, which is dedicated to the memory of Lucinda Williams’s mother and aunt.

“I’ll take the best of what you had to give. I’ll make the most of what you left me with,” decides Lucinda Williams in “Learning How to Live.” To a country music melody, the twanging slow dance of guitar and drums, Lucinda Williams sings in the roughened voice of late night consolation, her familiar lisp part of the song’s music, part of its sincerity.

Williams laments expensive funerals in “Fancy Funeral,” the wasted money spent on death that could be spent on survival, on making a life, and it is a new song that Williams makes sound old—sound classic—as it is full of contemporary observations that seem traditional, timeless, an evocation of how the wrong things are granted attention in society.

“Come into my world of loneliness, and wickedness, and bitterness. Unlock my love. Unsuffer me,” demands Williams in the bold composition “Unsuffer Me,” which no doubt would be even more effective had most of us not heard Toni Braxton’s song “Unbreak My Heart.” Yet, Williams’s call—intense and ritualistic—in a stark yet dramatic musical setting, full of silence and sudden expressive notes and chords, chords from bass, with drumming, has power.

Time and what it does to love, to friendship, to daily life, is the subject of “Everything Has Changed,” and it is not a new subject, nor is it especially freshly imagined here, but it sounds like another solitary late night meditation or confession, sounding as natural as rain and mud, wood and stone, with its elemental guitar arrangement and other instruments (possibly violins and cello) subtly in the background.

A clueless man is the subject of the denunciation that is “Come On,” a rock music ballad with simple rhyming (fog/hog, demand/hand/stand, fired/inspired/tired), but it is the disgust of a woman that powers the song: sexual dissatisfaction has not been this ferocious since early twentieth-century Negro blues singing. It might have been even funnier—and more tearing—if Williams sounded less earnest and more mocking.

With what sounds like an introduction of cello (Tim Loo) and piano, “Where is my love?” asks Williams, a question giving the song its title, a song naming different towns where love might be found (Williams did something similar in “Joy,” on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road). “He can’t protect you” and “He can’t change you” sings Williams in “Rescue,” and this could be a warning to another woman or to herself, an important lesson that she is trying to teach or learn—the actual limits of love. In addressing the transformation ordinarily expected in love by its seekers in songs such as “Where Is My Love?” and “Rescue” Williams is doing something that approaches the philosophical; and the music of those songs and “What If” are among the most expansive—the most defiant of genre—among the songs that constitute West. A surreal exploration, the song “What If?” asks the listener to imagine the opposite of what is known, the cessation of the laws of nature, the creation of a mad reality (“if dogs became kings,” and “flowers turned to stone,” and “windows cried”). Williams digs beneath the quotidian; and both questions and establishes sense. She adds the most poignant what-ifs: “If children grew up happier” and “we loved one another in equal amounts.”

Williams gets into Joni Mitchell territory, in terms of the differing consciousness and perception of a man and a woman in—and after—a relationship, in “Wrap My Head Around That,” a spoken word piece with a weighted beat and dominating rhythm (I thought of the blues, the Beats, and the Doors). The song opens up new musical and psychological space in Lucinda Williams’s work. It’s a puzzler of a song.

A man’s “filthy sounds” are combated by the narrator’s own loftier thoughts and written comments (and particularly pretty music) in “Words,” and thus irritation and pain become creativity, fulfillment, a gift.

“Who knows what the future holds, or where the cards may fall, but if you don’t come out west and see you’ll never know at all” Williams sings in the song “West,” which is also a return to a more traditional country music sound, as if the album, an engaging and memorable work, were itself a form of travel. Anyone who has wanted change knows the hardest things to change are your own mind, and your own style; and those—consciousness and style—are what Lucinda Williams has experimented with on the album West.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. In addition to writing about Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Iron and Wine, the Cowboy Junkies, Joan Armatrading, Neil Young, Bright Eyes, and Cassandra Wilson for The Compulsive Reader, Garrett has written about Terrence Malick’s film The New World for Cinetext.Philo ( http://cinetext.philo.at/magazine/garrett/thenewworld.html ) and one of his pieces on James Baldwin appeared on IdentityTheory.com ( http://www.identitytheory.com/books/garrett6.html ). Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com.