Lucinda Williams: “Little Honey”
There is indeed something a bit unusual about Lucinda Williams’ new album, Little Honey, but it’s not the thing critics and fans seem to be harping on. Yes, Williams, though known for her melancholy lyrics of unrequited affection, cracks a few smiles on this album, writing from a place of romantic contentment and peace, letting her hair down for some twitterpated sex songs and rollicking love songs, but the big news here isn’t just that she’s happy– it’s that she’s recorded and released a new album at all, only a year after her last one, West. A notorious perfectionist in the studio, Williams usually labors over her records for a long time– some might say too long– to get everything just right, which means that she’s never been one to bang out records in short time spans. But that’s exactly what she’s done here, resulting in an album that could rightly be called her loosest, most tossed-off set yet.
Or at least, it sounds like her most tossed-off; for an artist as calculating as Williams, it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some planning that went into this seemingly spontaneous new set, and indeed, what we have here is a classic case of corrective steering. West, after all, was an album that found the artist forsaking her usual rootsiness and ragged edges for a carefully polished, manicured sound, alienating many fans and critics in the process. Little Honey, then, might be seen as a deliberate attempt to reclaim her reputation as a bluesy, boozy rocker– which is exactly what the album is, with Lucinda and her band tearing through Stonesy rockers (opener “Real Love”), honky-tonk rock (“Circles and X’s”), bluesy workouts (“Tears of Joy”), and of course the requisite acoustic weepers (“Plan to Marry”). The set even ends with a strutting cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which says a lot about where Williams’ mind is these days.
But to say that this is somehow a loose, ragged set of tossed-off rockers is misleading. It’s not loose and ragged so much as it’s made to sound like it’s loose and ragged– even the false start of “Real Love” feels a bit like Williams’ attempt to let us all know she’s loosened up since West. As loud and as limber as these tracks can sometimes be, and as far back as they reach into blues and classic rock vernacular, it never feels like anything but a set of carefully planned and rehearsed songs. And that’s no problem, because there’s still plenty of grit and swagger here, and Williams’ band– billed as Buick 6– is filled with ace musicians, especially guitarist Doug Pettibone, who finds some deep blues grooves that really give some of these songs their fire.
But if the good news is that Williams has returned to a rootsy, rugged rock sound– this album has as many hard edges and as much country grit as World Without Tears, her underappreciated gem from 2003– the bad news is that the songs here actually do sound like they were tossed off. Williams, once hailed by TIME as the greatest living American songwriter, has left her careful character sketches and scene-setting gift for detail behind, instead continuing down the road of the primal, simplistic songs that made up much of West. Her balls-out rock and roll fury masks the repetitiveness of “Real Love,” her swooning ode to romantic fulfillment, but all the rugged rock glory in the world couldn’t save “Honey Bee,” a frankly embarrassing sex song that sinks under the weight of its own overstretched metaphor and crass carnality. “The Knowing” is just as bad, sporting the lamest chorus she’s ever penned:
And the knowing is all there is
And yes this is it
I didn’t know
Um, huh? That, apparently, is the kind of dumbed-down sentiment that Lucinda-in-love deals in these days. And it’s not just that she’s a sucker for her man (who happens to be co-producer Tom Overby); her topical songs are just as vacuous. “Little Rock Star,” which sounds like motherly advice offered to a generation of self-destructive celebrities, is as clunky as its title suggests, and her attempt at a protest song, “Plan to Marry,” is just full of platitudes: “Keep on believing in love/ Because love is a mighty sword/ Love is our weapon/ Love is the lesson.”
The album’s best song might actually be her duet with Elvis Costello, “Jailhouse Tears,” a winking update of the classic he said/she said country form that’s really pretty funny, and points to the album’s greatest strength– namely, that Williams reconnects with the muse of great American idioms like country, rock, and blues, which means that, on a purely sonic level, the album is pleasant enough, but it also marks another step down in Williams’ devolution as a songwriter, which ultimately makes it a rather distressing listen. Perhaps she can keep cranking up the volume and try to drown out what’s beginning to sound like terminal writer’s block, but that seems like a tragic compromise for an artist who was once able to have it both ways.