To say that confessional songwriting has its limits is an understatement. For every guru like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell there are probably a thousand Avril Lavignes waiting to fill the airwaves with sappy sentiment. As one whose bared heart advertises humanity rather than narcissism, Lucinda Williams belongs in the first category. Her latest album, “West,” is resounding proof — as if anyone really needed it — that she deserves to be on the shortlist of great American songwriters.
At 54, Williams is now sounding her age, and that’s a compliment. From the beginning, “West” is filled with compelling meditations on a world that has failed to live up to its many promises, a long dirt road that has dispensed a good number of embraces but a far greater number of blows. Williams’ voice on the opening bars of “Are You Alright?” — gliding, but not galloping, over a gentle rhythm section and a subdued backdrop of guitars and organ — sounds as if a little piece of her soul has been lost to the wind with each puff of cigarette smoke over the years.
“West” doesn’t threaten to break any sonic barriers. It doesn’t need to. Much of the album’s musical content could neatly be filed under any one of those annoying genre labels currently floating around — alternative, alt-country, adult contemporary, roots rock and the like. What breadth or novelty Williams sacrifices, however, is more than repaid by a virtuosity of voice and a stunning depth of feeling.
If Williams expresses a certain level of weariness with the way life has treated her — “The mystery and the splendor don’t thrill me like before,” she sings on “Everything Has Changed” — her aim is never to beg for pity or even empathy from the listener. Like every genuine artist, she’s interested not in lamenting her misfortune but in putting forth a version of the world that inspires and instructs. “Learning How to Live,” which sounds almost like a fresh take on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” demonstrates that Williams is still possessed of a certain beneficence that is spare but overwhelmingly redeeming.
“West” is a wholly organic endeavor, and with each song its emotional tone shifts effortlessly and subtly through the many hues of heartache. In the stripped-down, primal groove of “Mama You Sweet,” Williams surveys herself and finds “an ocean in my spirit and cracks on my lips.” It’s a rather apt formulation for the way the rest of the album unfolds: there’s a mighty path of devastation and woe, but there’s also a righteous wrath (manifested in the loud, careening “Come On,”) and an unmistakable generosity of heart (most notably in the title track, a closer with both feet in the past and one eye on the future; a long, melancholy withdrawal into silence).
One might wonder whether the music industry should be embarrassed that some of its best products are coming from artists who have been in the business for ages. It shouldn’t. No hot young thing, however talented, could make a record like “West” in any decade. But with luck, artists like Lucinda Williams will be around for a long time to come.