It’s long been said that the blues — in all its forms — is one of the most potent means to transform pain into beauty. Lucinda Williams has known that since she began devouring music as a youngster growing up in Louisiana, and she’s been finding new ways to perform that alchemical reaction ever since.
With West, a disc that may well be Williams’ most personal work to date, the singer-songwriter channels both her emotion and restive creative energy into a startling set of songs that touch on both darkness and redemption. At turns strikingly spare and compellingly muscular, the album’s 13 cuts attest to her willingness to stretch as a musician — and to put herself on the line as a chronicler of life.
There’s no disputing the sense of struggle that imbues songs like “Fancy Funeral” — a ballad with a gentle lilt that can’t mask the disillusionment of a narrator trying to make a case for the meaninglessness of such an affair. Nor can one miss the ache in “Mama You Sweet,” a raw-but-right rumination on what remains after the loss of a loved one.
On the other hand, West is rife with songs that serve to enliven and affirm, albeit in decidedly non-Hallmark fashion. The fiery “Come On” — a kiss-off tune in the mode of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” — uses a stinging guitar hook to grab the listener by the lapels, all the better for Williams to deliver a knockout blow with a flurry of acerbic, double-entendre lyrics. There’s a similarly edgy vibe at play in “Wrap My Head Around That,” which stalks stealthily for nine minutes of hypnotic rhythm — goosed along by Bill Frisell’s serpentine guitar — that matches Williams’ sharp wordplay at every turn.
The envelope-pushing sonics on those songs can be attributed to Williams’ recent listening patterns — an eclectic list that includes Thievery Corporation and M.I.A in addition to The Black Keys and White Stripes — as well as the collaborative relationship she developed with the album’s co-producer, Hal Willner.
Having decided that she’d been doing “the singer-songwriter thing by default,” Williams took off in something of a new direction during the ‘90s, issuing the slow-burning Sweet Old World — a disc that, as much as any release, helped place the Americana movement at the forefront of listeners’ minds — and cementing her own spot in the cultural lexicon with 1998’s rough-hewn masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
That disc earned Williams a Grammy as a performer, and — true to form — inspired her to shift gears again for Essence (2001), a sensual, burnished offering that prompted Time magazine to dub her “America’s Best Songwriter,” a title she upheld righteously two years later in 2003 with World Without Tears.
That quest is at the center of each of West’s songs — and Williams’ unflagging ability to embark upon it openheartedly from so many directions lends an unambiguously timeless feel to the disc, a sense that it can be appreciated in a bucolic meadow, a darkened room or a raucous roadhouse.