MUSIC REVIEW: Lucinda Williams

West Lost Highway
Music •••• Sound ••••
At an age (54) when many of her contemporaries are settling down, mellowing out, or getting philosophical, Lucinda Williams is still writing albums about impulsive love and sexual obsession. To which we can only add, "You go, girl!"

Sure, there is a good amount of philosophizing on West. At least two of the songs were inspired by the death of Williams's mother, and they ring painfully true, especially the matter-of-fact "Fancy Funeral." But as she's been admitting in interviews, most of the other songs were inspired by a doomed love affair with a reckless rock & roll guy. Those, also, are painful and true - not to mention sexy, messy, and fascinating. As usual lately for Williams, the album is full of exposed nerves, with a couple of unfinished-sounding songs and one outright dud (the free-associative "What If"). But the disc as a whole benefits from being left raw and unpolished, as befits one of the few songwriters who could get emotional mileage out of the line "Dude, I'm so over you."

West, like 2005's Live @ the Fillmore, is oddly structured, with its most downcast material at the beginning and end, its big outbursts in the middle. The opening, in fact, is fairly underwhelming, as both "Are You Alright?" and "Mama You Sweet" pull her now-trademark trick of running a single phrase into the ground. It's the double kick of "Fancy Funeral" and "Unsuffer Me" that blows things open - the first a bruised survivor's song, the second a wonderfully unhinged rocker. Her vocal on the latter is halfway between tantrum and come-on, the kind of revealing performance that few pop singers would risk.

Only two other songs ("Come On" and "Wrap My Head Around That," the second and better of her ventures into rap) go out on the same limb, but most of the quieter songs are equally compelling. This is Williams's most countryish album since the Rough Trade days, and both "Words" and "Where Is My Love?" bear out her oft-overlooked ability to swing a gorgeous melody. Her coproducer, Hal Willner, adds some atmospheric touches but generally leaves you and the singer alone together.

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