Maybe it's that I am a soft touch, or was lacking in Alpha Male destructive potential to attract the sweet girls but for much of my dating life I always attracted the attentions of Bad News. Women who had more than their share of foxiness but running through it was a streak of misfortune laid there many years before I ever arrived on the scene. Warning signs with Bad News women are never subtle - you find yourself making a detour to a bail bondsman a little earlier in the relationship than seems prudent. She borrows your car a lot, and has the wiles to subliminally convince you that taking the bus is not only your civic duty, but a little adventure. And the thing about Bad News is that even in all their destructive power, there is a softness, a gentleness that precludes forgiveness, no doubt a trait she had to cultivate given the sphere of mayhem that follows her. I thankfully ended my Bad News period over a decade ago, having married a woman with enough sense to keep the wolves outside the door rather than invite them in, and have been without reservations since. But, it does bear mentioning that Bad News is something you never lose a taste for, even if you stay away from that page of the menu. >
Lucinda Williams has always embodied that honey sweet side of Bad News for me. Her voice and her words are laced with too many nights in the bar, too many sunsets seen from driving all night, too many hastily packed bags, too many magnetic lanky bar dudes. She's almost reached legend status in music circles, but really I will say she has four really great records: Lonely Woman Blues (1980) a stunning raw document of the artist portrayed as a confused woman so sincere, so American it was issued on the Smithsonian's Folkways imprint; her self-titled pop follow-up eight years after that one - "Passionate Kisses" and "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad" are the finest songs about desperate love that Big Star didn't record; her true commercial success Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) - the album is actually a little spotty, but the title track is maybe the best song ever written, maybe; and finally, this one. West comes on the heels of a number of experiments into lushness that in my opinion squander her songwriting.
West places her in maybe the most bare emotional setting she's had on record, her voice flickering like a candle. She doesn't quite have the soar she did two decades ago - who among us do - but instead each rasp and note coming out of her mouth is impeccably shaped, both refined and rugged. Word is, producer Hal Wilner (of Stay Awake and Weird Nightmare fame) is responsible for this in that he took Williams' demo and stripped it of everything but the vocals, rebuilding the album around them. It's brilliant. She has a voice a lot like Jeff Tweedy's (though I imagine the flowchart arrow goes the other way) that it hovers on the brink of being off, and in that hovering does its real beauty glow.
There are no rockers on this record, just heartache after well-crafted heartache. The opening number "Are You Alright?" is the mantra one repeats when involved in Bad news, where catching up is never just catching up. It's the flipside of "Am I Too Blue??" from her 1988 self-title record, where it seems she no longer asking what's wrong with herself, accepting her flaws and is now focused on your Bad News ass. I don't know Lucinda Williams, so I don't know how close to the bone her songs are, but no one comes closer t the meat of love than she does. "Mama You Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral" stagger closer to her folkier, stoner side. The lyrics of "Mama" rise and fall like the tides she depicts. Her rambling delivery, resigned after the death of her mother that inspired the song makes this song magic.
The peak on this record is the slow drag through the murk of the soul "Unsuffer Me" where she interlaces her slur with a fiddle and a wailing guitar. There is nothing subtle here; "unbruise and bloddy, wash away the stain" pathos is exercised here. Lucinda Williams is one of those singers that can make you shudder if you open yourself up to her, which is exactly what she goes for on this track. Tom Waits, who regrettably gets put on the same top shelf as Williams, once said he knew a song was working when the room started to fill with water, and while I think his spring may be a little dry nowadays, the metaphor stands with the songs on West. After the slow-train to Catharsisville that is "Unsuffer Me", the light acoustic number "Everything Has Changed" is just as much a shock.
The only weak spot here is the overlong "Wrap Your Head around That" where her lope leans a little too close to lackluster rap. Skip track, problem solved, because the final two songs more than make up for it. "Words" is as natural a song as winds in rushes and the title track is an atmospheric epic that could teach Will Oldham a thing or two about how to write a slow song. All in all, this album is a near-perfect mix of a voice, lyrics and instrumentation, as daring and ultimately exhilarating as that first dance with someone you know you will regret down the line.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com