The long-awaited return of Americana’s First Lady

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Lucinda Williams – West

Much is made of Lucinda Williams the writer, the poet of southern aches and pains. Time magazine called her “America’s Best Songwriter”, while The New Yorker devoted thousands of words to the testy perfectionism that delayed the release of 1998’s galvanising Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. The fact that Williams is the daughter of a (relatively) famous poet, Miller Williams, has always distinguished her from other Americana types on the Lost Highway of credible country rock.

But the real key to Williams’ singularity is surely her singing. Or rather her phrasing, which is always close to conversational, and the way she shapes her vowel sounds, which suggest a redneck Chrissie Hynde or perhaps Bonnie Raitt with a wad of tobacco in her mouth. By turns righteously sexual and biliously bitter, Williams gives rich voice to the complexities of middle-aged femininity. If we hadn’t known it already, the performances on last year’s terrific Live @ The Fillmore made clear that Williams is way more than a well-read fiftysomething rock chick: she’s a great singer, with a searingly bluesy edge to her voice.

For West, originally titled Knowing until the song of that name was dropped from the tracklist, Williams wanted to make a record that might stand next to Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather as a statement of mature womanliness. As a consequence she hired that album’s producer Hal Willner to refashion a number of tracks she’d recorded in LA with her band.

Willner, who may be carving out a niche for himself as a new Daniel Lanois or even Rick Rubin after years of assembling highbrow “tribute” albums (to Disney, Mingus, Kurt Weill et al), stripped the existing tracks back to Williams’ voice and long-time sideman Doug Pettibone’s guitar. Then they were fleshed out again using such seasoned heavyweights as Jim Keltner (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), Bill Frisell (guitar), and Jenny Scheinman, who not only plays violin on select songs but provides string arrangements that – on “Unsuffer Me”, at any rate – tip the hat to David Campbell’s work on his son Beck’s Mutations or Sea Change.

“Mature but hip” (Williams’ words) West certainly is. The album sifts through themes that have dominated Lucinda’s life for the past three years. Most markedly, the end of another combustive relationship prompts moods that are variously stoical (“Learning How To Live”), tortured (“Unsuffer Me”), and forgivingly concerned (“Are You Alright?”) The same pain may or may not have inspired the snarling Courtney Love emasculation of “Come On” (as in “You didn’t even make me…”) and the nine snide minutes of “Wrap My Head Around That”. Hell hath no fury like that of a spurned co-dependent.

The death of Williams’ mother in March 2004 triggered the tenderly sensual “Mama You Sweet” and by implication the austere, Emmylou-ish “Fancy Funeral” – the latter the album’s closest brush with conventional country, or country conventions. Emmylou’s ‘90s work with Lanois is brought to mind by the coolly gliding “Rescue”, with its swooshing organ and flinty Frisell guitar fills. Another reference point – on such spartan wood-and-steel outings as the neo-Appalachian “Everything Has Changed” – would be Williams’ good friends Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

In some ways, West bears the same relation to World Without Tears, an album of considerable variety and experimentation, as the back-porchy Essence did to the rocking, Grammy-grabbing Car Wheels. . . The Neil Young influence that marked World’s “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings” is apparent here on the anguished grind of “Unsuffer Me”, the intemperate yowl of “Come On”, and the utopian dreaming of “What If” – the latter a clear nod both lyrically and melodically to “Cortez The Killer”, and West’s only follow-up to World’s despairing “American Dream”. Nevertheless, the feel on West is more Stray Gators than Crazy Horse.

Williams devotees will feel quite at home with the place names on the droopily pining “Where Is My Love?”, which namechecks Helena, Tupelo, Birmingham and Gainesville if not, sadly, “Joy”’s Slidell (aka Slaahdayel). They’ll also like the sleepy ease of songs such as “Words” and “West”.

“West”, as it happens, is the happy note on which West ends. For it transpires that Williams has met another “love of my life” – for once not a relapsing bass player but an A&R man at Mercury Records subsidiary Fontana – and on the album’s title track he’s waiting for Luce to wing her way back to Cali from her adopted Nashville. After the venomous put-down that is “Come On” and the sour, sub-Prairie Wind plod of “Learning How To Live” – surely the blandest song Williams has ever written – “West” is a pleasantly upbeat way to sign off.

What’s missing on West is the sultry bayou sway of Car Wheels and Essence and the Drive-By Truckers feistiness of southern rockers like “Pineola” and “Changed The Locks”. If Williams has always put a certain literary distance between her feelings and their expression, there’s a soulful warmth on her earlier albums that’s oddly absent here. Perhaps it’s Willner who’s responsible for a sound that’s a little too parched and cerebral. An album of sometimes stark simplicity, West is in many places rather drab and charmless. Go wrap your head round that if you can.

BARNEY HOSKYNS