Album of the Week, December 23: Lucinda Williams

For Lucinda Williams, the third time was truly the charm. She began performing in the early 70s, blending a love of Hank Williams and Delta blues from her father with a fondness for folk — especially Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell — encouraged by her mother. After a few potential record deals that fell through when A&R people couldn’t put her in any box they understood, she signed with Folkways and recorded an album of traditional blues, country, and folk; Ramblin’ was released in 1979. She followed this with Happy Woman Blues — a disc of all original songs — a year later, demonstrating her great potential. Her notorious perfectionism, frequent relocations, and a failed marriage ate up the better part of a decade.

Title Lucinda Williams
Act Lucinda Williams
Label Chameleon Release Date 1988
Producer Gurf Morlix, Dusty Wakeman and Lucinda Williams
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. I Just Wanted to See You So Bad
  2. The Night’s Too Long
  3. Abandoned
  4. Big Red Sun Blues
  5. Like A Rose
  6. Changed the Locks
  7. Passionate Kisses
  8. Am I Too Blue?
  9. Crescent City
  10. Side of the Road
  11. Price to Pay
  12. I Asked for Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)

She struck up an unlikely partnership with British label Rough Trade, known for its punk and new wave output. They gave her the creative control she wanted, and she created her early masterpiece. The eponymous nature of the album reflects its nature as a strong fresh start. Williams wrote all but one of the tracks and they are start to finish flawless. The album launches with a wonderful piece of yearning, I Just Wanted to See You So Bad. Rollicking, lusty, and aching, it’s a perfect two-and-a-half minute welcome to the album. From there we move to The Night’s Too Long, a switch to third person (unusual for Williams) for the story of Sylvia, a woman reinventing herself. It’s a strong narrative as she balances her loneliness and independence. Williams directs the chorus at an unnamed man who is clearly interested in Sylvia, encouraging him to give her the love she desires. Another aching song, Abandoned is a stark as its title. Betrayed by a lover, the singer wearily refused to be taken for granted and demands honesty and freedom. Big Red Sun Blues has a snappier beat but — as the title hints — deals with sorrow as well. It’s ultimately optimistic, but clearly describes the suffering that often frames happiness. The optimism swells in Like A Rose, a tender song about new love. Striking a new, encouraging tone, Williams encourages a lover to leave behind his fears and join her in a new adventure together. Things shift to the angry side in Changed the Locks, one of Williams’ finest songs. A repeated riff of all the things she’ll do to distance herself from someone who betrayed her, it balances clever lyrics, driving music, and an angry edge in her voice perfectly. From there we move back to yearning with Passionate Kisses, a statement of need and independence that has become central to Williams’ image. Also bursting with clever images and perfect delivery, it’s the true heart of the album. Am I Too Blue explores loneliness again, posing questions to a distant lover and hoping for an accord. After that emotional trio we head to Crescent City, a tribute to a city that feels most like home to the singer. A joyous, honest celebration of friendship and of New Orleans, it’s a wonderful emotional high in a challenging album. Side of the Road is quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to misread it as a song about a troubled relationship. In fact, it’s another statement of independence, asking a loved one to provide the space needed for the relationship to flourish. It’s another standout (and a personal favorite). That independence gets gritty again with Price to Pay. A strong “don’t treat me bad” song, it wraps up the originals on the disc with Williams’ trademark spirit. The closer is I Asked For Water, a Howlin’ Wolf cover that Williams’ nails. It could seem out of place in a set of such strong original compositions. Instead, it serves as a respectful nod to her influences and fits perfectly with the lyrical and musical themes of the disc. It only took four years for the next album. By then, Williams was well known within the music business and much respected as a songwriter. Patty Loveless took The Night’s Too Long to #20 on the Country charts. After Williams’ toured with her, Mary Chapin Carpenter covered Passionate Kisses, scoring a #4 Country hit and pop crossover and winning Williams’ a songwriting Grammy. Other artists have since mined her catalog, with Changed the Locks receiving a number of covers including one by Tom Petty. Lucinda Williams has continued to release powerful, excellent albums. This disc, serving as the foundation of her career, remains a powerful high point and a wonderfully complete musical package. FURTHER LISTENING: Given her perfectionism and frequent label changes, Williams’ output is relatively small. A side benefit of this is that almost every disc has a great deal to offer. Critics usually laud Car Wheels On A Gravel Road as her masterpiece. It’s an excellent album with material as strong as Lucinda Williams. Sweet Old World, which she released between the two, is less consistent but features many wonderful songs, including a surprisingly perfect Nick Drake cover.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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