By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
It's good to be Lucinda Williams right about now.
There's her tour, which is going great. Make that better than great: Her new rhythm section, with David Sutton on bass and drummer Butch Norton backing up Williams and virtuoso lead guitarist Doug Pettibone, is clicking, and her fiancé, Tom Overby, is accompanying her on the road. (He's also her manager.) And last month, West, her most recent disc, garnered three Americana Music Award nominations, for Album of the Year, Song of the Year ("Are You Alright?'") and Artist of the Year.
"I'm just thrilled with the new band. We're having a good time, you know, everybody gets along great the band, the crew, everything," Williams says. "And at this time in my life it's nice to be able to share this time with the love of my life. He's the first person I want to be with. We're best friends. So that's been really cool."
Home in LA on a two-week hiatus, Williams sounds rested. Or maybe she always sounds that way. Williams talks like she sings, not literally but in the sense that her drawl puts you in the mind of a late night somewhere south of where you are. Outdoors, but not far from a bar. Someplace where the air is hot and languid, the beers icy and light.
So it seems a little, well, rude to bring up the fact that some people had some pretty infelicitous things to say about West when it was released around Valentine's Day. The album drew scattered acclaim Entertainment Weekly gave it top marks, likewise amazon.com and allmusicguide.com yet it's safe to say that West was Williams' least well-received work since her breakthrough disc, Lucinda Williams, launched her to cult stardom back in 1988.
In many ways West was a departure from the alt-country press-pleasing material that pervaded Williams' earlier work. The musical arrangements, courtesy of producer Hal Willner, were uncharacteristically lush, and the subject matter veered from visceral to dreamy. Two songs "Mama You Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral" dealt with the death of her mother. And what to make of "Wrap My Head Around That," a nine-minute declamation that recalled Marianne Faithfull's venomous masterpiece, "Why'd Ya Do It?" Or the sneering "Come On," with its mocking double entendre: "You didn't even make me, come on!" The ingénue of Lucinda Williams ("I Just Wanted to See You So Bad"), who'd lain on her back and moaned at the ceiling on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ("Right in Time"), cackling at some poor fellow who couldn't measure up? The temerity!
Pitchfork called West "tedious" and "manufactured." Ben Ratliff of the New York Times dug into his thesaurus and pulled out "puffed up" and "draggy." (And really, who gives a fuck what Entertainment Weekly says?)
There were parts of the album they flat didn't get.
"The reviewers kept claiming that 'Unsuffer Me' was a song about an ex-lover," Williams says. "All this time on the road, I've had to clarify the song before I sing it and make sure people understand that this is not a song about an ex-lover; this is a song about self-enlightenment and the search for spiritual fulfillment. And consequently that song has taken on a whole different spin. The reaction to that one song has been phenomenal. But the critics haven't described it like that. When the record first came out, they assumed that that song was 'just another song about a guy who done me wrong' and it's anything but that." Same goes for "Are You Alright?" which Williams has felt it necessary to explain was written for her brother, not some extinguished old flame.
Williams traces the turning point in her songwriting and the critical reaction to 2001's Essence. "I was kind of going through a dry spell where I wasn't really writing that much, because of the pressure to live up to Car Wheels," she says. "And I knew I was going to have to break out of that somehow." In order to jump-start the process, she pulled out her notebooks, which were filled with unfinished songs. ("I never throw anything away," she says.)
That exercise yielded several songs. But the remainder of Essence came from someplace else. "When you look at Essence, and you look at World Without Tears , you can see me kind of branching out, trying different things," says Williams. "Like 'Righteously,' on World Without Tears, and 'Atonement,' 'American Dream.' I look at it kind of like poetry set to music.
"I started getting a lot more criticism after Car Wheels," she adds. "I think it was also because I was more well-known then I wasn't like the critics' darling anymore. You know, it's hard to deal with on a personal level, because then you start to be, like, you want to please everybody, and you can't. But then at the same time, it can kind of push you into this place where you go, 'Well, what the hell, I might as well just do whatever I want to do,' because not everybody's gonna like everything anyway. So you just kind of get to this place hopefully you get to this point where it kind of makes you stronger, and it sort of catapults you into this other place artistically."
She got there.
"I feel like with West I've finally come full circle. I had to go through Essence and through World Without Tears, and get all the criticism," Williams says. Working with Hal Willner was a key element of that process, she adds, reaching for physical terms like "musical landscape" and "spacious" to try to describe the result. "Production-wise, I think that West is really the record I always wanted to make. I was always a little afraid of working with a real producer, because I was afraid of getting overproduced. And this time I was ready to take that next step and see what would happen."
Though she has tried to tune out the lukewarm critical reception, one doesn't get the sense that Williams is much good at burying her emotions. "I hate reading reviews because I get all pissed off," she admits, and adds that the tone of some of the criticism "was almost kind of mean-spirited. I read this one, and [the author] was, like, this and that, blah, blah, blah, and then he goes: 'So wrap your head around that.'"
Not surprisingly, more than 80 percent of the writers who reviewed West you can count them for yourself at the aggregator site metacritic.com were men.
"The music business is dominated by men," Williams responds. "The government is dominated by men. The world is dominated by men."
Is it possible, though, that West created by a 54-year-old artist confronting her mother's death while at the same time feeling more self-assured than at any other point in her career and happily in love might resonate more with women than with men (and in particular with men who miss the "old" Lucinda)?
"I've found the love of my life. I'm engaged God forbid, you know? I'm actually with someone! And now when I do interviews, they almost poke fun at that. They go, 'Now that you're in a satisfying, contented relationship, what's gonna happen to your songwriting?' I'm serious I get asked this all the time."
And her answer? The singer previously known for interminable between-albums interims says she's ready to go back into the studio.
"I know, it's a different thing. That's a turning point too, I guess," Williams says. "I guess that just comes from having had more experience. I'm more prolific than I ever have been. I just feel more open at this time in my life, more ready to try new things, you know, probably a little bit more secure of myself in my older age. I like to quote what my dad says: 'Well, you know what your alternative is to getting older....'
"Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that I was gonna be able to achieve some sort of contented day-to-day life while still being able to make great art. But it took a while."
So wrap your head around that.
For more of what Lucinda Williams has to say about life, love and songwriting, click here.