Lucinda Williams

West

(Lost Highway; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

Lucinda Williams is a great singer-songwriter -- easily one of the best of the last 30 years. She has earned this distinction on the strength of four remarkably good albums; her career starting with 1980’s Happy Woman Blues and culminating 18 years later with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998). Along with Lucinda Williams (1988) and Sweet Old World (1992), these albums display an unparalleled songwriting skill. Williams was a master, setting the scene with a few words and absolutely devastating the listener with a simple image or wistful phrase. She wrote remarkably well for her age in the eighties and sang, even as a young woman, with a gorgeous, smoky voice that perfectly fits the fuck-ups and dreamers that populate the narratives of her songs.

This legacy makes West really, really painful. Coming from an unknown artist, West would be disappointing if it was anything at all; coming from Williams, it’s entirely abysmal. Because it seems pointless and offensive to hold Williams to anything less than the highest standard; it’s a standard she set herself, after all. When you’ve written and recorded as many brilliant songs as she has, you just have more expected of you.

The record is billed as a rumination on death (Williams’s mother) and loss (a relationship gone wrong); it comes off as a crash-course in half-baked songwriting, poor delivery, and MOR production. Throughout West Williams abandons the hard-nosed storytelling of her previous albums, instead falling awkwardly into repetition, clichÈ, cloying sentimentality, and vacant anger. Songs like “Mama You Sweet,” “Are You Alright,” and “What If” are so painfully bad that not even Williams’ lovely voice can save them. The nine-minute proto-rap “Wrap my Head Around That” is unlistenable, while the immature jabs and sexual innuendo of “Come On” are just embarrassing.

What is worse, however, is that, given a great studio and, presumably, any backing musicians she would want, Williams produces drivel like “Unsuffer Me,” a song that’s one Carlos Santana solo short of dad-rock purgatory. Over a string section and processed guitars she sings “my joy is dead / I long for bliss.” Nine years ago, accompanied by some filthy guitars and a thick blues drum line, she tore into the penultimate track of Car Wheels with “I don’t want you any more / ‘cause you took my joy.” I’ll take the latter any day of the week.

Every once in a while Williams manages a decent turn of phrase, or even a complete song. The final two tracks are un-embarrassing, and “Fancy Funeral” isn’t too bad. But that’s just a tease; these moments are few and far between. On a record as long (68 minutes) and poor (very poor) as West it’s a daunting task to even pick them out.