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West by Lucinda Williams (Universal/Lost Highway)

The trials and rewards of being a fifty-something female who’s still out there provide the thematic threads running through Lucinda Williams’ eight studio album. Writing as a relative latecomer to this southern songstress’s extraordinary body of work, I can only say, even on the evidence of this one record, I’m enthralled. Like many so-called ‘country’ artists, she first came to wider notice through having her songs covered by others, e.g. Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Petty. Odd, in a way, considering that her smoky, lived-in voice is almost as equally appealing as her flawlessly well-wrought songwriting.

More confessional in tone than 1998’s narrative-driven attention-getter Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the chief life events contributing to the writing of this material were the death of her mother in 2004, the break up of a destructive two year relationship, and the recent finding of a new soul mate. What is remarkable about Williams is her ability to inhabit both the tough raunchiness of ‘Come On’ and ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ and the tender vulnerability of ‘Where Is My Love?’ and ‘Rescue’. ‘Come On’ comes on like a gender-reversal parody of every denim-clad cock rocker of the ’70s, a screech of female sexual dissatisfaction, while the poignant ‘Unsuffer Me’ is the other side of the coin, a plea to take away the pain and Come fill me up/With ecstasy. Although sometimes harrowingly heartfelt, the journey ends on an optimistic note, in the title track, with Williams leaving her adopted Nashville for L.A., to be with her new love.

The roots Patti Smith, then? Her conversational phrasing certainly calls to mind that reference point, as it does the songs of experience which make up Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather. This is clearly an artist who, as she has said of herself, lives to write and writes to live, and is succeeding in making maturity hip.


First published in Magill, May 2007



 

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