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.