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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lucinda Williams and the Y Chromosome

Posted By on Wed, Feb 28, 2007 at 5:18 PM
It's not a Sweet Old World, Lucinda -- it's a Man's World
The verdict’s in on the new Lucinda Williams album, West, and it’s not good. By which I mean the critical take on the artist’s first release of new material since 2003’s World Without Tears is a thumbs-down.

The album represents somewhat of a departure for Williams, whose five releases from 1988’s Lucinda Williams to World Without Tears garnered nearly universal raves from (for want of a better umbrella term) the alt-country crowd. (Williams had released two LPs prior to the eponymous breakout disc, as well as a two-disc live set that came out in 2005.)

Everybody loved Lucinda (a poet’s daughter) for her songwriting, filled with intimate details rendered in stark specificity, and her delivery, a drawl that could range from languid to leonine to, well, to lip-lickingly lusty. That she was a perfectionist who

lingered over production minutiae, putting out what seemed like an album every hundred years or so, only burnished her cult-fave status.

West was a long time in the making, but the songs are more atmospheric, less down-to-the-DNA detailed. The album’s sound -- which you might also call atmospheric -- is a break from the past as well; Williams enlisted producer Hal Willner, who some say invented the modern tribute album. (There’s violins on here, for cripes sake!)

More to the point, West reflects the fact that Williams’ mother died last year, that she’s now involved with a guy who’s not a nutjob, and also -- not to put too fine a point on it -- that the singer who was 36 years old in 1989 recently turned 54. “I’m really excited about this record and my future,” Williams recently told longtime rock writer Bud Scoppa (see his story in Paste). “I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I feel like I’m only just now peaking as an artist -- just coming into my own. I’m getting more comfortable in my own skin.”

Thanks to aggregator sites like metacritic , which link to dozens of reviews from beaucoup publications, it’s pretty easy to see the big picture. According to metacritic’s “metascore,” West’s overall grade stands at 69. (For an explanation of how they arrive at that number, go here.)

Savvy blog-surfer that you are, you already knew all that.

But I was struck by something as I looked down metacritic’s list -- and I do mean down; the site arranges its review links in descending order; individual scores ranging in West’s case from 100 points (a number generally based on the reviewing publication’s scale; again, you can look here) down to a low of 30.

Nearly all the reviewers are men.

Discerning observer of popular culture that you are, you already knew that, too.

I’m not going to take issue with the critics. They write what they write based on what goes in their ear. That goes double for RFT’s Roy Kasten, whose alt-country cred is to mine as Dom Pérignon is to MD 20/20.

I’m not reviewing the CD myself, either. But I think the tide of critical opinion points to an element of the album and its audience that’s worth discussing:

I have a feeling the male-female critic ratio is more illuminating regarding West than the by-the-numbers critical take is. I have a feeling -- just a feeling -- that women will respond more positively to this record than men. Why do I think so? Because I think the place Williams is in her life will resonate with women on a level that’s beyond intellectual discussion of songwriting or production or career arc. Not the subject matter, per se, but the sensibility that’s delivering it seems to me to be more easily related to by women than by men.

Yeah, astute critic of the patriarchy that you are, you were way ahead of me here yet again! And yeah, not only do I qualify for skid-row status as a music critic, what business do I have weighing in on what women think?

But to forge blithely ahead, is this any different from the way women artists are received in the wider world? I couldn’t say, though I’d guess not.

As for West, you can come to your own conclusions about the critical mass. Here’s a list of all the reviews I could find (on metacritic and beyond), with excerpts and links where available.

Unlike metacritic’s, this list is ordered from leastest love to mostest. Reviews written by women are highlighted.

New Yorker (Ben Greenman) excerpt: “Snoozy and boozy and often blurry with self-help cliché….”

New York Times (Ben Ratliff) excerpt: “There’s not enough humility on this puffed-up, draggy roots-rock record, except at the beginning and the end.”

Pitchfork (Stephen M. Deusner) excerpt: “[T]he heartbreak that has been a defining theme in her music sounds newly tedious, the romantic conflicts manufactured.”

Now Magazine (Sarah Liss) excerpt: [T]he gloom ’n’ doom ballads here follow the woman Time once voted America’s best songwriter deeper into her vortex of inane Seussian couplets.”

Austin Chronicle (Christopher Gray) excerpt: “[Much of] West is just too musically placid or lyrically uninspired to elicit much passion from either the listener or, disappointingly, Williams herself.”

Village Voice (Nate Cavalieri) excerpt: “[C]onfronting mortality seems to have thrown Williams into wandering, formless meditations.”

Riverfront Times (Roy Kasten) excerpt: “When Williams isn’t working very hard to distance herself from herself, she just repeats herself.”

Blender (David Browne) excerpt: “[T]he album is often duller than its predecessors, with bummed-out banalities repeated from previous records.”

Pop Matters (Roger Holland) “Somebody should probably tell Lucinda that mature is rarely hip.”

Los Angeles Times (Richard Cromelin) excerpt: “[W]ith its limited focus, “West”…is a narrow and unbalanced work.”

(UK) Observer Music Monthly (Neil Spencer) excerpt: “[H]er trademark drawl and cracked vocals can sound mannered….”

Hartford Courant (Eric R. Danton) excerpt: “The saving grace of the record is the beauty: jagged and rough and sometimes so understated, it lingers on the edge of consciousness.”

The Onion A.V. Club (Keith Phipps) excerpt: “[S]kip around the attempts to make a big, angry noise and you’ll find as pleasing a piece of folk-pop as you’ll likely hear this year.”

Rolling Stone (Robert Christgau) excerpt: “The opener, ‘Are You Alright?’ is one of her greatest songs ever, and exemplifies how powerful the new method can be.”

Seattle Weekly (Mike Seely) excerpt: “[A] mellow, dreamy ode to Left Coast maturity and the challenges therein -- a straight-line progression from [World Without Tears].”

Boston Globe (Sarah Rodman) excerpt: “The songs…enrich as well as exhaust, and engender cautious optimism.” (Thom Jurek) excerpt: “[I]t’s a record about the heart, about its volumes of brokenness, about its acceptance of its state, and how, with the scars still visible to the bearer, it opens wider and becomes the font of love itself.” (Don McLeese) excerpt: “Though the arrangements stray from Lucinda Williams’s motherlode blend of blues, country, and folk, West may well be her best album.”

Relix (Wes Orshoski) excerpt:“What you’re hearing, more often than not, is a crushed, pissed (‘Come On’) and emotionally wrecked Lucinda. And, more often than not, that makes for great art.”

Detroit Free Press (Martin Bandyke) excerpt: “Her grainy voice is filled with ache and heartbreak but also achieves magnificent, clear-eyed catharsis that is often nothing short of revelatory.”

Newsweek (Lorraine Ali) excerpt: “Williams is so artful with her misery you can’t help but ride the waves, and occasionally sink, with her.”

Entertainment Weekly (Chris Willman) (that’s Mr. William to you) excerpt: “As bummers go, West is a beautiful one….”

People (Chuck Arnold) excerpt: “[T]he first great CD of 2007.”

The (UK) Guardian (Sylvie Simmons) excerpt: “[N]o one does pain as eloquently as Williams -- or as multifariously.”

-Tom Finkel

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