- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

Lucinda Williams

West

Lost Highway

You don’t need to say the last name; “Lucinda” will do. After nearly 30 years in the biz, she has been canonized by critics and fans of a genre she helped invent, roots rock. All this makes criticizing her a tricky affair — an errand for knee-jerk iconoclasts.

But I’ll try, respectfully: “West,” her eighth studio album, left me bored. The songs are overlong and undernourished. I’m not compelled by her depressiveness, and I no longer find her voice expressively idiosyncratic. Now it’s merely imperfect.

This isn’t to say Miss Williams isn’t one of rock’s greatest poets or that the tracks here wouldn’t sound stunning in the hands of a lesser artist. If, say, Carrie Underwood managed to assemble a batch of songs like this, people would be calling Simon Cowell the new John Hammond.

The set’s co-producer, Hal Willner, cautiously challenged Miss Williams’ sonic palette, helpfully incorporating electronic samples and the cranky fretwork of guitarist Bill Frisell into skeletal song arrangements that depend all too much on expectations of rapt attention to Miss Williams’ artful turns of phrase. On the penultimate song, aptly titled “Words,” Miss Williams proudly shows her cards: “They still remain my only companion, loyal and true to the very end.”

Great for pure poets — problematic for singers of songs.

At her most indulgent, on snoozers such as “Learning How to Live,” “Where Is My Love?” and “Everything Has Changed,” Miss Williams lazes her way through three-chord banalities that just sort of ripple outward to no destination, other than dry ground, for five minutes or more. The talky, taunting “Wrap My Head Around That” tops nine minutes — a prolixity I don’t care for even when coming from the song’s most obvious influence, Bob Dylan.

Sometimes, this very deliberate method of repetitiveness works brilliantly. The first pair of songs, “Are You Alright?” and “Mama You Sweet,” cast incantatory spells. The former precisely expresses the kind of needy plea that one directs at a silent or missing partner: “Is there something been bothering you/I wish you’d give me a clue/Is there something you wanna say/Just tell me you’re OK.” The latter, inspired by the death of Miss Williams’ mother, combines childlike affection with barely repressed emotions of pain and grief.

Pain and grief, of course, are Miss Williams’ metier. A little goes a long way, and Miss Williams, an extravagant wallower in pain and grief, is never content with a little. So you’re almost relieved by the comical fury of a song like the Neil Young-esque “Come On” — almost. Then you’re jarred by its repeated use of a not-so-clever joke about a failure of sexual climax. “Dude, I’m so over you,” Miss Williams hisses, begging the question of why she spent so much time under the song’s erotically ungifted subject.

Patchy though it may be, there are moments on “West” when all the essential Lucinda Williams elements come together and remind you why she’s such an object of reverence. “What If” spins a tale of dissociative chaos: of dogs becoming kings, prostitutes becoming queens and blood-filled rivers. Its melody and imagery are mesmerizing, and Miss Williams’ voice quavers and cracks with a kind of brittle beauty.

The majestic title track, which closes the album, is unashamed of its homespun romanticism: “I sleep out in the desert/Under the stars above/And keep making an effort to wander in your love,” Miss Williams sings. There’s even a detectable sliver of brightness there — and a little of that would have gone a long way.

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