It’s not all that hard to find an artist who’s capable of offering a guided tour of life’s dark clouds – nor is it rare to come into contact with one who can hone in on the silver lining. But the ability to do both with equal grace, well, that’s an altogether rarer gift – and it’s one that Lucinda Williams displays with remarkable élan on her latest Lost Highway album, Blessed.
Blessed, recorded at the end of what Williams calls “a really big writing streak that gave me enough to make two albums,” brings those textures to play in some of the most straightforward songs she’s ever written. While it’s not a concept album as such, Blessed – recorded with producer Don Was – brings together a dozen masterfully-crafted pieces that fall into place beautifully, their welcoming sonic tenor offering an ideal foil for the conversational narrative that runs through the dozen short stories – tales that take in plenty of topical territory, but invariably end up offering the listener a sense of affirmation.
“Being married and feeling comfortable in my life, I’ve been able to go outside myself and write about other things,” she says. “I feel like this album, as a whole, is positive, but it’s not my so-called ‘happy’ album. Yes, I’m in love and I’m happy in my personal life. But my personal life isn’t the only focus. There aren’t all those unrequited love, ‘I’ve been shot down by a bad boy songs’ … well, there’s one of those … but there are songs about all sorts of things. It’s just a lot easier to stretch these days.”
The expanse of Williams’ palette is gradually revealed over the course of Blessed, a collection that unfolds in an origami-like fashion. The gentle plaint of “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin” – a stripped-to-the-bone track on which she uses the appealingly weathered edges to carve out a loving message of hope – gives way to the pedal-steel laced “Copenhagen”, a tender requiem for her late manager.
While that air of mortality imbues a few of Blessed’s songs – notably the fiercely slashing “Seeing Black,” on which Williams cuts through a hail of angry guitars that come courtesy of Elvis Costello, who makes a rare non-vocal cameo, with stark, poignant questions to a friend who chose to end his life, the album offers as many looks at the light at the end of the tunnel as it does glances into the abyss. “Kiss Like Your Kiss” exudes a sassy sensuality, while the closing “Sweet Love” is, quite simply, an aural incarnation of that title, pure, warm and sweet.
“I didn’t have a fully realized picture of what I wanted the album to sound like going in, but I hardly ever do,” says Williams. “Back when I was playing open mic nights by myself, I’d be sitting up there with my Martin guitar and doing ‘Angel’ by Jimi Hendrix or ‘Politician’ by Cream’ alongside Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie songs. It never occurred to me to pick just one style. That’s stayed with me ever since. ”
Williams has never hesitated to wave that flag of iconoclasm, but she’s never used it as a shield. Ever since the release of her 1978 debut Ramblin’ on My Mind (recorded on the fly with a mere $250 budget behind her), the Louisiana-bred singer-songwriter has been ready, willing and able to call upon both her natural affinity for roots music and her familial literary tradition. She learned the importance of professional integrity around the same time most kids are learning their ABCs, thanks in large part to her award-winning poet father Miller Williams -- who invested her with a “culturally rich, but economically poor” upbringing where artistic expression was of primary importance.
“Thanks to my dad, I grew up around poets and novelists and they all had families and normal lives and most of them didn’t achieve even nominal success until much later in life,” she recalls. “I have to keep reminding people that, yeah, I’m a musician, but first and foremost, I’m an artist and art is about expression, about expressing your feelings about what you’re going through every day. I think this is the closest I’ve come to capturing that essence completely as an artist.”
She’s never settled for any sort of pigeonholing, entering the ‘90s with the rich, sepia-toned Sweet Old World -- a disc that, as much as any release, helped place the Americana movement at the forefront of listeners’ minds -- and cementing her own spot in the cultural lexicon with 1998’s raw, immediate masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The latter disc earned Williams her first Grammy Award as a performer (she’d also scored one as a writer thanks to Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s version of her “Passionate Kisses”), but rather than try to capture the same lightning in a bottle a second time, she stretched her boundaries on 2001’s Essence, an album rife with both cerebral interludes and soul-stirring stomps.
In recent times, Williams has shown herself to be the kind of artist who’ll never back down from a challenge, whether collaborating with surprisingly kindred spirits like M. Ward and Flogging Molly or putting her own spin on iconic tunes like Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and Jimmy Webb’s classic “Galveston”. She’s taken that same approach to her most recent recordings as a solo artist as well: The 2006 release West and 2008’s buoyant Little Honey - an album Paste hailed as “an album that brims with varied, impeccable writing” - made for an ethereal emotional travelogue that takes in both great loss and the sort of discovery one can only make when emotional barriers are taken down.
“People buy into this myth that once you’re quote happy unquote, you just die as an artist – that’s inane. It’s ridiculous,” she says. “People have actually asked me, ‘well, will you still be able to write now that your life is happy?’ That’s a somewhat pedantic point of view, the myth that happiness can’t be part of the backbone of creativity.
Indeed, she takes on a number of roles here, from the fallen fighter who narrates the whisper-soft elegy “Soldier’s Song” to the affably hard-nosed kiss-off specialist delivering “Buttercup.” But whatever the topic, Williams’ voice – both literally and figuratively – is unmistakable. It’s a voice that conveys experience without world-weariness, purity of spirit without naiveté – a combination that reaches its zenith on the album’s title track, a poignant acknowledgment of those who bestow blessings upon us each day, whether we know it or not.
“I had this image in my mind of how a stranger can affect you, and you them, at the same time,” she says. “We have this concept that someone who is less fortunate than we are in some way has nothing to offer us, and that’s not true at all. Everyone has a gift to give as long as you’re willing to accept it, from the girl selling flowers at a Mexican restaurant to the homeless man on the street. It’s all about the hope that there’s good in humanity if you look for it – which is really the feel of the whole album.”
By the time Blessed’s final notes resound, that hope will not only be clear, it’s likely to be passed on to the listener – paid forward in the most touching way.
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