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February 13, 2007

Shortcuts—Lucinda Williams's West

In 2002, Time proclaimed Lucinda Williams the best songwriter in America. It’s been five years, yet all the evidence still suggests that they were absolutely right. She’s not only America’s best lyricist, but also one of its most skillful singers. Since she writes her own songs, she knows exactly how to sing them, emphasizing the appropriate words and skillfully arranging all her compositions. The idea of the West, the title of her newest album, has long been an American metaphor for expansion and change, forces that have helped to shape this country. Williams, however, understands that that change, for all its purported importance, is bittersweet: We gain at the expense of losing, and our identities, our families, and our friends are transient and ephemeral.

Lucinda Williams wrote West while grieving over the death of her mother and sadness and melancholy pervades many of the album’s songs. “Mama You Sweet” is Lucinda’s visceral, aching description of the grief that has already commenced. The song’s plaintive refrain, “I Love You Mama/ You Sweet” is as soothing for Williams as it is for the listener. “Fancy Funeral,” one of the album’s most affective songs, strips away the meaningless gloss of modern funerals: “Some think a fancy funeral will be worth every cent/ for every dime or nickel is money better spent/ better spent on groceries/ covering the bills.” A sense of purpose and vulnerability drives these songs.

In “Are You Alright,” Williams is most probably speaking about herself as she sings “Are you alright?/ Is there something been bothering you?/ Are you alright?/ I wish you give me a little clue.” Other times on the same track, you feel like she’s singing to and for her mother, wherever she is: “Are you sleeping through the night?/ Do you have someone to hold you tight?/ Do you have someone to hang out with?/ Do you have someone to hug and kiss you?”

Almost all of Williams’ albums reveal her at different times and in different moods. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her masterpiece, sounded confident, amusing, loud, and at times wistful. She packed as many of her musical influences into it as she could until the sound finally became her own, special and dear. Essence, released in 2001, found her in love, and its stripped down production revealed the singer’s softer side. A World Without Tears, released two years later, was sadder, but also louder. Bad breakups had done their number on Williams, and the album’s raw, aching sound was a bit too much for some listeners.

It would be inappropriate to call West a breakthrough for Williams because she’s been rewriting the rules, writing some of the best songs in recent memory. But If West is not the best work she’s ever done, then it’s quite close to it. This is her second masterpiece, and surely one of the year’s best albums.