Lucinda Williams' singing voice inhabits at least a dozen personalities, sometimes within one song. She can cajole, confront, tease, confess, entice, and mourn as she slides down one note and holds another just a moment longer than you think she will, keeping you guessing where she's off to next. She lures you into her latest album, West, her strongest studio effort since 2001's Essence.
As a songwriter, the 54-year-old Williams is her daddy's daughter—poet Miller Williams taught his girl well. The heartbreak in her songs shows up in the precise details and the emotional impact they invoke. This album resounds with loss, as all Lucinda's do, though here it's rooted in the death of her mother, Lucille, as much as in romantic break-ups. "Mama You Sweet" is an obvious example; the opening track, "Are You Alright," is less so. She could be singing these words to a lover who's left, but the frightened tone and plain language make her sound like an abandoned child: "I looked around me and you were gone /I feel like there must be something wrong /'Cause it seems like you disappeared /'Cause I've been feeling a little scared." Williams often employs repetition, here singing "Are you alright" after each line to the doleful strumming of an electric guitar. The combination of words and music makes you want to tuck yourself away in a safe place, covers pulled all the way up to your chin.
THIS ALBUM STEPS away from the narrative storytelling songs that 1998's utterly perfect Car Wheels on a Gravel Road offered. "Fancy Funeral" comes closest to that style. "Lily of the Valley /And long black limousines /It's three or four months salary /Just to pay for all those things." Sounds like someone who's spent time in a funeral parlor recently and come out with knowledge that can elude those who grieve: "'Cause no amount of riches /Can bring back what you've lost /To satisfy your wishes /You'll never justify the cost." It begins as a quiet song, with acoustic guitar and strings, and builds with layers of instrumentation—nothing more than it needs, appropriate to the theme.
Williams rarely pens a love song. Laments for love lost, however—those she knows well. "Learning How to Live" is one of her finest. With its more traditionally country beat, it's a crying-in-your-beer sort of song: "I'll take the best of what you had to give /I'll make the most of what you left me with." But it contains flourishes only Williams can offer: "For you I might've even changed my name," "All I have left is this dime store ring," holding out that "diii-mond store ring," teasing herself and her listeners with images of diamonds. Lu's never needed diamonds anyway.
Williams growls and moans her way through "Unsuffer Me" over a relentlessly driving melody. "Come On" just might be the greatest break-up song so far this century, all angry music and dismissive lyrics, though only the opening line ("Dude, I'm so over you ...") can be printed in a Christian magazine.
The one misstep on the album, "Wrap My Head Around That" is nine minutes of indulgence, with uninteresting musical accompaniment and weak lyrics. You forgive her instantly, though, with the following track, "Words." Organ and electric piano open up to an irregular beat and a tumble of images. "My words enjoy the feel of the paper /Better than mingling with your consonants /Once they get going, they never waver/And they slip in between your if, ands, and buts."
In Williams' world, the past is in the Deep South (isn't it always?), and the future is out "West." After an album's worth of looking backward, she turns her gaze ahead on this gentle closing track. She asks for company, though with clear eyes: "Come out west and see /The best that it could be /I know you won't stay permanently /But come out west and see."
Williams has been called the best songwriter working in the country these days. This album offers plenty of proof to keep her holding on to that title. Take the chance and join her on West.
Kimberly Burge is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.