On Lucinda Williams’s breakthrough album, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, there’s a fantastic bluesy track called “Joy” in which she sings of her joy being stolen and how she’s visiting towns like West Memphis and Slidell to search for it. Nine years later, the Lucinda Williams who shows up on the dour, intermittently riveting West probably wouldn’t even recognize her joy if she did happen to stumble across it.
Indeed, Williams’s albums haven’t represented a progression so much as a magnificent downward spiral, with each more ravaged than the last. West may represent a lighter touch than 2003’s elegiac-in-every-detail World Without Tears, but not by much. Opener “Are You Alright?” involves Williams looking in on an old flame and shrewdly reveals that perhaps her well-being is of greater concern. This worry proves well-founded: Later tracks “Fancy Funeral,” “Unsuffer Me” and “Where Is My Love?” are about as cheery as their titles imply.
There comes a time when this constant portrayal of emotional fragility could become tiresome, and rifling through the lyrics shows that Williams dipped from this well of sorrow one too many times. West‘s saving grace is that musically it’s Williams’s most alive and urgent work since Car Wheels. Producer Hal Willner has provided a full-bodied, subtlety-rich background for the proceedings. The fretwork Williams trades with Doug Pettibone and the insanely accomplished Bill Frisell provide a marked resuscitation for the cold, dying heart described in so many songs. Most gratifying is the winkingly raunchy kiss-off “Come On,” where accusing a lover of leaving her cold is, ironically, Williams at her hottest.
But the tracks that don’t work misfire spectacularly. Perhaps Williams and Willner were doing us all a favor putting the two worst offenders alongside one another. “What If” posits what the world would be like “if dogs became kings/ And the Pope chewed gum/ And hobos had wings/ And God was a bum,” and the song’s melody is obscured by the barely decipherable sound of John Lennon rolling in his grave. Equally dreadful is “Wrap My Head Around That,” which takes nine-odd minutes to go from nothing to nowhere.
On “Everything Has Changed,” Williams explicitly acknowledges that the joy robbed from her nine years ago hasn’t come back around: “I can’t find my joy anywhere/ All the magic vanished in the misty air.” Under most circumstances, this would be construed as a bad thing. Instead, West and its distillery of tears is a generally laudable culmination of themes that Williams has explored over the years, and the best melodies within linger like the saddest of memories. That in and of itself is a positive development.