You know what critics love? A good (or bad) baseball analogy. I don’t care much for baseball myself (Sacrilege? Fuck you, shorten the season. If a team can lose fifty games at some sport and still make the playoffs,the season is too goddamn long. I don’t need to pay attention to baseball until August at the earliest), but the analogies can be useful on occasion, as long as you admit that they’re more cliché than 1) saying things are cliché and 2) excusing clichés by saying that they contain little nuggets of truth (Yes, I have done both things on many occasions. Yes, I will continue to do so because I think contradicting myself makes me human. Also: buckle up for another fucking baseball analogy). So let’s use a baseball analogy to talk about Lucinda Williams. I’m not concerned with how many home runs she’s hit (The answer is maybe one, 2005’s Live at the Fillmore) or anything like that. I’m concerned with how many more at-bats I’m willing to give her. Since her home-run live album (that’s admittedly hard to pull off), I’ve been waiting for Williams to release something that matched the raw power of that set and, to complete the analogy, Williams has spent the last few years on the sad end of a no-hitter.
One of my biggest complaints about the last couple of Lucinda Williams records (her most recent stinker, if my bookkeeping is up to scratch, was 2008’s Little Honey) is that they’re almost painfully honest, to the point that they seem to sacrifice songcraft in favor of just letting Williams rant. If I wanted to read your diary, Lucinda, I’d break into your house. I want to hear you sing songs. So get on with it.
Blessed (produced by Don Was and randomly featuring Elvis Costello on electric guitar, something he should start fucking playing again on his own albums, thank you very much) gets off to a dubious start with “Buttercup” – the guitar snarls, sure, and the sentiment is pretty nice (“Good luck finding your Buttercup” is a nice way to tell someone who thought you were something you’re not to go fuck themselves), but the verses get a little too close to the awkward diary-scanning of recent Williams efforts. “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin'” is okay, I guess, but the line “I’ve always got your back” rings a little hollow in my ears. “Copenhagen” finally gets a good melody going and has a subtle but tasteful guitar hook as well. But the inconsistency of the first three tracks is a harbinger of the rest of the album’s failings.
When I listened to Little Honey, I got this sinking feeling about half way through the record that maybe I just wasn’t as big of a Lucinda Williams fan as I thought I was. Or maybe I’m not as big a fan as I’d like to be. Or something. Anyway, I’ve had that fear since I started listening to Blessed. I like Williams’ voice a lot, but her songs have gotten almost dogmatically unpoetic. “You were born to be loved” is a nice idea and I can’t argue with it as an assertion. But I have to listen to it as a song and the song is a plodding downer with lyrics that sound like the sort of thing Michael Stipe crossed out before settling on the lyrics for “Everybody Hurts” (another song that is a nice idea, if a little too on-the-nose lyrically. Though it’s not their best song, at least R.E.M. had the decency to attach a fucking melody to it).
Another problem with songs like “Born to Be Loved” is that Williams sounds unconvinced when she’s trying to be tender (I think). “Seeing Black” is repetitive but it’s one of the best songs on the album because her anger and sadness over a friend’s suicide (rumor has it she’s singing about Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas of 2009) are unfiltered. it takes a lot of guts to go for the jugular in a song about suicide, but that’s where Williams shines. The raw emotion saves the song from some awkward rhymes and gives Blessed a little bit of kick.
The more I listen to Blessed, the more I labor under that feeling I mentioned earlier, that I’m maybe not as into Lucinda Williams as I want to be. It’s been at least a year since I listened to Live at the Fillmore and it could very well be that I remember that album being better than it was. Blessed falls completely flat when it tries to tug my heart strings (“Soldier’s Song” is supposed to make me all weepy for what our men and women overseas face every day – again, a noble intention to be sure – but it’s so trite and obvious that it can’t get down to the bone where it wants to. See Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow” for tips on how to do soldier’s songs properly), and it tries to do it quite a bit. The title track would be great if it had a real chorus; Williams seems to have moved away from choruses over the last few albums and I’m hoping maybe she’ll come back to them someday. Choruses: they fucking work. That’s why all the greats write them.
Blessed does feature one truly good song in its second half, the gospel-tinged “Convince Me.” It has a lovely melody and that hint of gallows humor that permeates all of Lucinda Williams’ best tracks. But it’s a dangerous tune to put on such an inconsistent record because it all-too-neatly sums up my feelings about Blessed. I keep waiting for Williams to convince me that she can make an album as consistently listenable as this song and it looks like I’m gonna be waiting for a while. You’ve gotta slog through some real dull stuff to get to the deliciously old school “Convince Me” (the guitar at the end of this song is a little cliché, but it has more fire than pretty much everything else on the album) and I certainly wouldn’t have the patience to do it myself.
In a lot of ways, it’s fitting to me that Elvis Costello is such a frequent Lucinda Williams collaborator. Both artists have shown glimpses of brilliance (Costello even did “American Gangster Time” as recently as 2008, but then immediately fucked things up by putting it on an album with a song about his kids) in the past decade – they did a duet called “There’s a Story” on Costello’s The Delivery Man that is really fucking good – but they’ve also been wont to meander and indulge all their worst tendencies on records that feel longer than their already considerable length. Their recent albums are like train wrecks that occasionally spew geysers of candy even as they shatter lives in gnarls of twisted metal and conflagrations of poorly executed ideas. So in a lot of ways, I guess the best thing I’ve learned from Williams’ Blessed is that I was right to skip Costello’s National Ransom.