Car Wheels on a Jell-O Road

No Depression goddess tries her hand at depressing mediocrity

The most powerful introduction to Lucinda Williams's new record comes not from the languid, repetitive opener "Are You Alright?" but from the liner-note inscription by her poet father, Miller Williams: "You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." As one of the past decade's most esteemed songwriters, Lucinda's strong suit has always been finding such ulterior junctures, whether we catch a glimpse of them through her kitchen window while "Loretta's singin' on the radio" or in her bedroom as she lies on her back to "moan at the ceiling."

What's disappointing about the majority of West—most its songs addressing the loss of a lover and the passing of Lucinda's mother—is the scarcity of such confidential details. If the poisoned well of bad love has soused some of her most brutally detailed observations (see crushers like Essence's "Reason to Cry" or World Without Tears's "Overtime," for starters), confronting mortality seems to have thrown Williams into wandering, formless meditations. After the opener, she moseys through a few innocuous tunes before regaining familiar footing in "Fancy Funeral," but that song's eye for detail—carefully named flowers and a long black limousine costing "three or four months' salary"—is absent amid the squall of "Unsuffer Me" or the petulant wrath of "Come On" (which ends every chorus with the sing-it-with-me-girls zinger "you didn't even make me . . . come on!"). Worse is "What If," wherein Lucinda imagines a world where "cats walked on water and birds had bank accounts" and thus makes anyone who once declared her "America's Best Songwriter" ( Timemagazine, for example) want to eat crow.

But no matter how far off the reservation Lucinda might stray, her personnel are more tightly focused and impeccable than ever—guitarist Doug Pettibone, violinist and string arranger Jenny Scheinman, and especially Rob Burger, with his perceptive touch on organ. When all those elements come together—as on "Where Is My Love," "Rescue," and the gently swaying title track—the spirit hits the bone squarely, in a place that doesn't seem all too distant from where we wish Lucinda Williams would always be.

 
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