Lucinda Williams, "West" (Lost Highway)
"My songs reflect where I am in my life," 54-year-old singer-songwriter and
alt-country heroine Lucinda Williams recently told the Daily News. "It's
like writing a journal: I have to do it, otherwise I'll die." As that quote
indicates, Williams' music has never been light, breezy listening; even her
1998 breakthrough, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," made for a disturbing if
not downright depressing ride at times. But inspired by the death of her
mother and the turbulent end of a romantic relationship, the follow-up to
2003's "World Without Tears" may be her darkest, most solemn album ever.
"Are you alright?" Williams asks again and again in the opening track of
the same name. The insistent repetition, the lonely 3 a.m. quality of her
sandpaper vocals and the sad lilt of the music -- exquisitely recorded in
"you are there in an intimate, near-empty roadhouse" style by Hal Willner --
might prompt you to reply, "Yeah, I'm fine, but I'm really worried about
you." Then you realize that Williams is singing to an errant lover who
just picked up and left, and the act of inquiring about his well-being is
really a way of saying, "I'm doing great, or at least better than you,
"because you don't know what you lost."
And so it goes through all 13 tracks, on the songs inspired by the loss
of her mother ("Fancy Funeral," "Mama You Sweet"), the end of that
relationship ("Come On," "Where Is My Love?") or both ("Unsuffer Me,"
"Learning How to Live"). But the unrelentingly mid-tempo grooves create a
melancholy vibe that's almost oppressive by the end of the disc. That's
particularly unfortunate, because for all of her somber soul-searching,
things are actually looking up for Williams -- who now says she's met the
love of her life -- and the ultimate message of all of her songs is one of
resilience and pushing forward, just like the westward expansion of the
American settlers evoked in the title.