West Label: Lost Highway Records
On several occasions over the past few years, I’ve acknowledged the Midas touch of the great Lost Highway record label. Newcomers Tift Merritt and Tim O’Reagan have found a home with supergroups (Golden Smog) and legends like Willie Nelson and Van Morrison on a label that’s reinvented Johnny Cash, re-established Elvis Costello, and simply put Ryan Adams on the map. Lost Highway once again deserves acknowledgment for acquiring the brilliant and seasoned Lucinda Williams, who, at 54, has been grinding along in this Americana/Folk/Country space for nearly 30 years now, racking up countless awards and a timeless catalog that would barely fit in a Bank of America vault. She was named “America’s best songwriter” by TIME magazine a few years ago, fer Crizzakes!
Williams wrote some 27 songs for the new West, eventually narrowing her focus to 13 original compositions. Be warned, this is a toxic batch. These are the kind of songs that sting like your first shot of cheap bourbon. Whether or not your heart’s been smashed, your soul tortured or your family broken, these songs will drag you along for a slow burning adventure in dull pain. “Take away the pain / Unbruise, unbloody / Wash away the stain / Anoint my head, with your sweet kiss / My joy is dead,” she growls on “Unsuffer Me,” as a scorching slow-hand guitar sizzles in the background. Even the good is bad. A seemingly upbeat and warm “Mama You Sweet” begins with “I love you Mama you sweet” before that bourbon takes, giving way to “Pain hits a wall and doesn’t know which way to go / The ocean says I’m crying now, and tells pain to follow.”
West boasts nothing loud and raucous, no wide-open rock entries, certainly nothing here like “Bleeding Fingers” from 2004’s World Without Tears. But what is here, and what ultimately works, is a slew of acoustic guitar-based, mid-tempo folk songs that won’t lull you to sleep. Not if you give ‘em half a chance, that is. “Are You Alright,” though repetitive, is a car-riding joy of a song -- simple, succinct, and easy to follow. It’s much the same with a slightly jumpier “Learning How to Live,” an unsubtle middle finger to an ex who Williams taunts, “I’ll take the best of what you had to give / I’ll make the most of what you left with me.”
Contrary to what many in the music journalism community are saying, this is not Williams’ best work. If you asked 100 critics to rank her eight studio albums, I dare say, you’d get 100 different combinations. An artist of Williams' stature, however, has earned the right to transcend category, disregard awards, and generally avoid trite acknowledgment of any kind. Each album on her career quilt, while strewn together with familiar thread, stands as a different life snapshot, a tattered Polaroid of where she is, how she’s feeling, who’s betrayed her, and how she intends to get even.