Alt-country queen Lucinda Williams navigates the dark path of self-pity better than most. But she's approaching a dead end on her new album West, which includes her worst material to date.
The disc is a gorgeously mellow affair. Ace session men lace each song with intricate layers of guitars. The tunes are fleshed out with churchy keyboards, closing-time percussion, lonesome strings and subtle electronic samples. The problems lie in Williams' pained vocal delivery and lyrics suffused with woe.
Venting should only last so long. Eventually, one has to buck up and do battle. Joni Mitchell didn't follow Blue with Bluer and Bob Dylan had the good sense to write songs about gangsters and a wronged pugilist after his confessional masterstroke Blood on the Tracks. But Williams refuses to lose the sad blue dress. Her whispers, sexy growls and overuse of vibrato just aren't working anymore.
West is ultimately a frustrating album. Most critics, me included, fawned over Williams' 1998 breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I later discovered her 1988 self-titled album and loved it even more. Sweet Old World (1992) is another essential. All three albums balance melancholy ballads with songs of perseverance.
But bleakness dominates 2001's Essence. On that outing, Williams accomplishes her goal of re-creating the swampy atmospherics of Dylan's eloquently moody Time Out of Mind. The songs bear titles like "Blue," "Lonely Girls" and "Broken Butterflies." The results are noteworthy, but the album is the start of her artistic decline.
Enter World Without Tears in 2003, another collection of mostly hopeless accounts. The entire album could be summed up by one line from the emotional thunderball "Those Three Days." Williams cries, "I have been so fucking alone" with the force of a person addicted to misery. There's purity of art there, I guess, but it's also a red flag.
On West, Williams tills the same fields of suffering, sounding more and more like she's stuck in a hole. When she repeatedly asks "Are You Alright" in the opener, it's as if she's speaking to the woman in the mirror. "I would rather suffer in sweet, silent, solitude," she confesses near the end of "Words." We, the listener, are bound to suffer as well. 2.5 stars