It’s interesting to note that Elvis Costello has now done two duets with Lucinda Williams (first on “There’s a Story” on his Delivery Man album and now “Jailhouse Tears” on her new Little Honey album) because the two artists have exhibited similar behavioral patterns over the last few years – namely, releasing some of their best and worst work, sometimes within a single album.
Anyone who heard West, Lucinda’s last album, was wise to just throw it out after the cringe-inducing “Come On” (the song is a dis to some ex-lover and rather than simply stating, “You couldn’t even make me come”, Ms. Williams tried to make it all cute and punny. Given the strength of her voice and songwriting, it should’ve been easy for her to be so boldly graphic, but what can you do? The song took the whole album down with it) and then you were probably stuffed up with trepidation upon the release of Little Honey. Well, like Elvis Costello’s most recent offering (Momofuku), Little Honey has both reasons to be encouraged and reasons to shake your head in disapproval.
The album starts off nothing short of awesome. The first 8 tracks of the album are really great, some of Williams’ finest work to date, not overwrought or given to her any of her worst excesses. And that’s when you get to “Knowing,” which starts off a long, steep plummet into the meandering, overlong stuff that sunk West. Literally every song after “Jailhouse Tears” is a stinker, especially the ill-advised (and slowed down! Why the fuck would you slow down a cover of an AC/DC song?) finale: a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top”.
But there’s kind of encouraging news here: you can just pretend the album ends with “Jailhouse Tears,” making Little Honey an 8-song EP instead of the bloated 13 track half-monstrosity it is. In which case, Little Honey is transformed from a mostly good album brought down to mediocrity by its last 5 songs into one of the best EPs of the year and a real return to form for Lucinda Williams. Well done!
“I’ve found the love I’ve been looking for,” she sings on EP-opener “Real Love.” And she found it “standing behind an electric guitar.” Now, anyone who has ever held an electric guitar and played one (assuming it was of any quality at all) knows exactly what she’s talking about here. “Real Love” incorporates Lucinda Williams’ tendency to see no line separating country and rock, which is why her best stuff sounds a lot like early Rolling Stones stuff. And, much like the Stones themselves, Williams would perhaps be best served by making sure she starts off every day listening to Exile on Main Street and then saying, “Oh yeah. I should sound like that.”
You can’t blame Lucinda Williams (or Elvis Costello for that matter) for wanting to expand her sound and try new sonic experiments but you also shouldn’t have to pay for the experiments when they go horribly awry. Perhaps the answer is for Williams and Costello to team up and just record an album together. They could check and balance one another into producing something of enormous quality. Or… they could enable each other into producing one of the most unlistenable pieces of shit in modern history (second only to whatever the Dandy Warhols do next).
It’s always more frustrating when an artist who has blown your fucking mind in the past produces embarrassingly crappy work. For example, when Fall Out Boy produces a shitty album (and they’ve produced nothing but shitty albums), I don’t sweat it. That’s a band that has never done anything but making infuriatingly awful music. But Lucinda Williams made Carwheels on a Gravel Road. That’s one of the best albums of the last twenty years. So when she makes stuff like West and the back end of Little Honey, it’s way worse than knowing that Fall Out Boy is going to release another album soon. I expect them to suck and I expect Lucinda Williams to rock. She still mostly does, especially if you ignore everything on Little Honey after “Jailhouse Tears.”