Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Blood, Sweat, & BLESSED: Lucinda Williams review
“Gifted” is a word that gets far too much play when writing about brilliant songwriters. It’s almost an insult. It doesn’t factor in the blood, the sweat, and the unholy pain that went into creating the five minutes of aural ecstasy you’re attempting to describe.If you have ever seen Lucinda Williams live, on ANY night, you’ve watched her stop the band mid-song, and re-start (on nearly every song), sometimes scolding a band member, sometimes cursing herself. There’s a good chance you’ve seen her cry. These are not the arrogant tics of someone in possession of a “gift”. This is an extremely talented woman, who works hard at her craft.
She set the bar impossibly high for herself early on, packing 1988’s Lucinda Williams album to the brim with ridiculously perfect songs. It took her ten years, but ultimately Lucinda left that record coughing in the exhaust of 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Call it alt-country if you want, but the future will hold no discussion about Lucinda that does not mention that record.
Things have been a bit patchy since then. Her 2007 release, West was bogged down by the grief of her mother’s passing, and bizarre double-entendres delivered in an awkward talking-blues style. She sandwiched a bunch of thickly morose reflections between a couple of stand-out rave-ups on Little Honey. In retrospect, 2003’s World Without Tears was unfairly maligned, or at the very least, overlooked. It was her best record of the last decade.
This past Tuesday (3/1/11), she returned to us in full bloom. Blessed hits every ragged emotional chord within you. Lucinda has always known how to start an album, and here she kicks-starts the record by lashing out at an abusive former lover on “Buttercup”. With a crunchy guitar lead by Elvis Costello, Lucinda leans into her vocal, growling and snarling. She punctuates the lines by addressing her victim as “honey”. Not so much suggesting lingering affection for him, but rather pity. It’s pretty brutal stuff. Then there's the lilting, heart-wrenching “I Don’t Know How You’re Living”. On the surface, it sounds like a pleading letter to her little brother. It’s someone just too far gone. Beyond help. It could be any one of us. The title-track is arguably the best track here (the fact that we can argue about which is the best track, is very good news by the way). “Blessed” is a simply gorgeous celebration of humanity, in all its ugly glory. It’s practically an anthem. I can envision a sea of waving hands and raised voices carrying the song home when she performs it.
Lucinda is one of the finest lyricists alive, and no doubt reviews of BLESSED will use the word “gifted”. I understand the impulse. “The Ugly Truth” has the following in the first verse, “Hide your background, hide your fame, hide your given middle name, swallow your pride, swallow your pills, in your house up in the hills”. Now it’s easy to think that just poured out of her, being the poet’s daughter and all, but I’d venture a guess that Lucinda toils over every line. I imagine her notebooks are filled with more frustrated scribbles and torn out pages than legible words. So let’s not diminish the work. Let’s not call it gifted. Blessed perhaps.
There is a Deluxe CD package and a Deluxe LP & CD combo available with eight different covers. The deluxe packages contain an additional CD of the entire albums’ demo tapes as recorded in her kitchen. To hear Lucinda so raw, and unguarded, in her kitchen, is to get a much deeper understanding of the heartfelt effort she put in to these songs. If you can spare a few extra bucks, the Deluxe packages are the way to go. However, by providing a receipt for any format, you can get four free MP3's of unreleased tracks.