In the decade between 1988 and 1998, Lucinda Williams was perhaps the most accomplished pop musician on the planet, if not the most prolific. Three albums, 1988's Lucinda Williams, 1992's Sweet Old World, and 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, completed a far-too-long and arduous journey from mysteriously underrecognized critics' fave to honest-to-goodness star.
A subsequent trio of records, completed by this year's West, has proven Williams to be an artist different from the one she was before the gold rush of Car Wheels. Up until that breakthrough, Williams made perfect albums. Since, she's made good ones where perfect songs have to be excavated. Post-Car Wheels, her music has been messier and more frequent.
This new Lucinda is a less concrete writer. Once beloved for her tangible, lived-in imagery, Williams has morphed into a more elemental, abstract songwriter. The songs are more generalized and sound less worried over — and worse off for it.
Essence, Williams' 2001 follow-up to Car Wheels, was well named. The album's tempo was slower — much slower — than her previous work and the lyrics much more spare. Essence was recorded with Bob Dylan bandmates Tony Garnier and Charlie Sexton (Sexton also produced), but the end result is more Time Out of Mind than "Love and Theft," more mood music than song music.
The opening cut, "Lonely Girls," signals Essence's lyrical simplicity and emotional self-examination. Lucinda Williams' opener, "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad," swept by in just 21 lines, nine of those the title refrain. But "Lonely Girls" makes do with just 21 words, with Williams meditating — in her breathy, marble-mouthed, and wondrous vocals — on "heavy blankets," "pretty hairdos," and "sparkly rhinestones," the alleged accoutrements of lonely girls, before reaching the song's inevitable conclusion, "I oughta know about lonely girls."
After that, such concrete images were harder to come by, with Williams attempting (and often succeeding) in breathing life into Creative Writing 101 metaphors ("Steal Your Love," "I Envy the Wind").
World Without Tears (2003) was a further step away from the lyrical solidity of her earlier triumphs. It's the album where Williams threatened to surrender to her most potentially annoying shtick, which isn't her easily fetishized Southernness or even her geographic specificity but her seemingly helpless romanticization of the substance-addled and emotionally wounded. In other words, this was the Lucinda Williams record for fans as enamored with beautiful losers (or, in the artist's own parlance, "drunken angels") as she is. It even contains a song called "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings," which seemed to be a test of sorts — a title sure to inspire some fans to hoist a Corona in hearty approval and others to forswear alt-country forever.
West pushes Williams further from her trad blues/country roots, and the songs are more uneven than ever. But there's still greatness to be found. "Fancy Funeral" is a throwback. It would have fit in perfectly on Lucinda Williams or Sweet Old World and is as good as anything Williams has ever recorded. Relatively unadorned and heartbreakingly direct, the song has Williams singing: "Some think a fancy funeral/Would be worth every cent/But for every dime and nickel/There's money better spent/Better spent on groceries/And covering the bills/Instead of little luxuries/ And unnecessary frills."
"Come On" might be the funniest Lucinda Williams song ever (humor never having been one of her more prominent qualities), while "Where Is My Love?" gets back to place-name-checking, which seems like a gimmick at this point. But it's her gimmick and it works for her, rooting around in Helena and Tupelo looking for her love. (After failing to find her joy in West Memphis previously.) And "Are You Alright?" taps into Williams' penchant for audacious repetition to sharp effect.
Elsewhere, though, Williams drifts. On "Mama You Sweet," she fills repetitions of the title refrain with a breathless rush of imagistic poetry not found on those earlier albums. "Learning How To Live" lapses into self-help speak. And "What If" is just loopy. ("I shudder to think/What it would mean/If the president wore pink/Or if a prostitute was queen").