Lucinda Williams' new album, West, is a loose and rambling affair. There are moments of exquisite beauty followed by listless sections that barely make an impression. Most of the songs average over five minutes in length, and "Wrap My Head Around That," a rap/blues rant, comes in at a robust 9:06. The title speaks of a direction, but the trip Williams takes is anything but a straight line.
There's nothing unusual about this except that for the Lucinda Williams of old, the idea of an album like West would have been nearly inconceivable. Williams is a notorious perfectionist, and stubborn souls will always face obstacles when trying to squeeze something like art out of the inflexible music industry.
Much has already been made of how Hal Wilner, credited as a co-producer, pushed aside most of Williams' regulars for a new assortment of backing pros. There's no doubt the songs here have a marvelous, shimmering sound -- soft, almost ambient -- that rewards the use of headphones. Wilner has let Williams' country touches slip away while pulling out too-brief flashes of rock muscle. Williams' singular cracked voice -- a thing of rough Southern beauty -- is framed for maximum dramatic effect.
So it's kind of a letdown that West opens with three mid-tempo numbers and threatens to turn off listeners right off the bat. The first, "Are You Alright," the best of the trio, is a naked and evocative plea for a lost love. But "Learning How To Live" is stretched too thin in its running time of over five minutes.
"Fancy Funeral," Williams' chilling but clear-eyed description of the physical and emotional price of burying a loved one (reportedly Williams' recently deceased mother), is an instant classic that rights the ship. The brooding atmosphere of "Unsuffer Me" matches the darkness that Williams evokes when she sings, "Come into my world of loneliness, of wickedness, of bitterness." "Come On," where Williams spits insults at a clumsy lover, practically jumps out of the speakers.
In the past, Williams would have shaved off three or four songs from West and tightened up the others -- and delayed the release date by two years. If we have to suffer through some sloppiness to hear more of Williams' songs sooner, that's an easy price to pay and an easy choice to make. Bring 'em on. -- Werner Trieschmann