Lucinda Williams: “Blessed”
I remember hearing a lot of Lucinda Williams fans saying– only half-jokingly, I think– that falling in love might have been the worst thing that ever happened to her as an artist. This was around the time of her last album, Little Honey, which documented– in sometimes embarrassing detail– the domestic happiness she’d found with her then-new husband, and yes, alright… the writing was a little dicey, certainly a far cry from the scalpel-sharp incisiveness and verbal precision she brought to her tales of unraveling love on classic albums like Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and World Without Tears. But of course, blaming the slack quality of the songs on her matrimony is rather churlish, and unfair to boot: Quality control, at least as far as lyrics go, was also something of an issue on West, a divisive record (and to my ears, a rather simplistic and ineffective one) that was sort of like Little Honey‘s exact opposite, a real downer of an album, full of loneliness and failed connections.
But now comes Blessed, and with it a fresh sense of perspective, which is in itself enough to make this my favorite Lucinda since World Without Tears; that it also happens to be her strongest set of songs and maybe her best-sounding album ever only sweetens the deal. This one is tougher to pigeon-hole as far as its mood goes, as there are some really sticky kiss-offs, a song about war, a song about death, a song about suicide, but also songs of devotion and compassion that ring true precisely because of the darkness that skirts their edges. All of them are brought together, seemingly, under the title song, a sort of philosophical statement that strikes me as being truly wise; its basic premise is that, even when things go down the crapper, as they clearly have for the narrators of a lot of these tunes, the mere fact of our existence suggests that we all tend to have it much better than we deserve.
Williams brought in Don Was to produce this one, fresh from the really remarkable country album he made with Elizabeth Cook (who I still think it a sharper writer than Lucinda, truth be told, in both the heartbreaking stuff and certainly in the funnier stuff), and he captures a really vibrant, full sound here that makes it immediately the best-produced Lucinda Williams album to date. There are a couple of weepy numbers early on in which sound and song alike are firing on all cylinders, as though everyone involved here is pushing each other toward forward. “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin'” is the kind of teary-eyed country slow-burner that Williams has always done so well– think of, say, “Fruits of My Labor” from the World Without Tears album– and the lyric here has a special resonance; it’s an expression of compassion and friendship that’s a far cry from the all-atwitter newlywed romance of Little Honey, sounding hard-won and really earned, wise and experienced in a way that many of the best songs on this album are. It turns “I’ve always got your back” into something really profound; “Copenhagen,” an elegiac meditation on the passing of a friend, does something similar with the simple phrase “you are missed,” and both songs are given a sad sort of shimmer by Greg Leisz’ expressive steel guitar work.
Elsewhere, the production has the effect of elevating lesser lyrics. “Seeing Black,” the rocking-est thing present on this mostly meditative set, is an absolutely enraged, accusatory song directed at the late Vic Chesnutt, who took his own life a couple of Christmases ago. The sentiment is powerful, the lyrics oddly forced; there is deep feeling to this recording, though, and I think a lot of its power comes via Elvis Costello, of all people, who doesn’t lend his voice to the track but does provide a wonderfully slashing, violent electric guitar performance that raises this one into something darkly hypnotic.
Speaking of hypnotic, there are a few songs here that take on almost a droning, repetitive quality; they’re not quite kin to the talking blues numbers she’s done before, but they do have the quality of being moody and meditative, as though the singer is really chewing on her own words, savoring the taste of them on her tongue. The title cut fits the bill here, and is without question the musical and spiritual heart of the album– its sense of perspective is welcome, though some of the turns of phrase are predictable and not as clever as Williams might think– but my favorite of this lot is “Born to be Loved,” largely for its late-night blues atmosphere (thanks once again, Don Was) but also for the way lines like “you weren’t born for nothing” seem like answers to “Seeing Black” and its seething rage.
I’m not quite as taken by everything here– “Soldier’s Song” is a tale of war that is perfectly fine, but, for whatever reason, doesn’t hit me in the same way that a lot of the new PJ Harvey songs do, and “The Awakening” is one of those rambling numbers that seems to wear out its welcome pretty early on– but it’s worth celebrating this album for the production alone, which is really just stellar from the first song (“Buttercup,” an otherwise unremarkable roots-rock number that’s given a whole new dimension by the addition of a bluesy organ) to the last (“Kiss Like Your Kiss,” just aching with southern sensuality). I should also add that, if the songs aren’t as across-the-board excellent as the ones on World Without Tears, I do think there are some terrific ones, and there’s a sense of ease to them that’s pleasing, all the more so because of the way they’re sung; fresh off of her wonderful duet with Karin Bergquist on the Over the Rhine album, Williams has never sounded so human as she has lately, and there’s a lived-in quality, a hard-won wisdom to these songs that follows suit.