direct any young woman looking for a role model to Lucinda Williams’s eponymous 1988 breakthrough. Williams was like Chrissie Hynde’s younger sister, not privy to the ambitions that drove Hynde from Akron to London to write dull rockcrit, form a band, acquire an incomprehensible accent, and record the greatest debut album anyone will ever make. Lucinda Williams chronicled the hardscrabble existence of a woman who drank too many Coronas, went home with guys she picked up in Crescent City bars, and loved her independence enough to remind the boyfriend for whom she feels genuine affection that she needs space “if only for a minute or two” to imagine what it would be like without him. Like Rosanne Cash’s King’s Record Shop, Lucinda Williams was rock-inflected country, as tough and wind-hewn as bark. In 1988 only Daydream Nation and that Pixies album had angrier guitars. But whatever you thought about the two Kims, Williams was the real tuff gnarl, an adult whose hold on adolescent recklessness tightened as the lines around her eyes started to deepen, and whose privacy was a commodity with which she was unwilling to part.
On the evidence of West, the recklessness has ossified into adolescent languor—sexual languor, that is, the kind of moony shit that keeps you in bed log after your loins ache and he’s gone to watch ESPN in the living room. No less than ten songs ape the soft-shoe shuffle of Essence’s “Steal Your Love.” No less than three attenuate the generalizations of their titles (“Learning How to Love” and “Everything Has Changed” are two) with said shuffle and melancholia. There’s a weird one that’s best described as Loretta Lynn imitating Jarvis Cocker (“Wrap My Head Around That”).
Hand-wringing will get us nowhere. Until the gold success of 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the biggest exposure Williams had gotten was from the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter (covering “Passionate Kisses” and forgetting the key adjective) and a New Yorker profile as solid, moving, and fraudulent as the intention behind James Agee’s prose in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Enshrined as an Undiscovered American Treasure, Williams had to work harder to justify the capital letters, which is why Essence includes a song about butterflies and a photo of Williams’s notebook and pen: the poet at work, as it were, on languorous banality. Thanks to guitarist and co-producer Charlie Sexton’s knack for knowing the difference between sleepy and slow, it still worked, but it remained a stumble.
Like late eighties Bryan Ferry, of all people, Williams has become enamored with a sound as hazy as an orgasm. Believe me, I’m sympathetic to middle-aged women alive to their own carnality. Since she’s one of those blessed artists for whom the stimulation of her pussy ranks at least as high as copping to Oprah-esque notions of “psychological” succor, the likes of “Are You Alright?” signifies on every level; the worn contours of Christine McVie’s voice in “Over My Head” conjured this kind of spiritual and acrobatic conundrum. The ingenuity of “Are You Alright?” consists of the variations Williams finds in the phrase, a trick she mastered on 1988’s “I Just Want To See You So Bad”: she dares to be simple, and it works. A shame she forgot this on “Words,” in which a metaphor like “My words enjoy the feel of the paper / Better than mingling with your consonants” sounds as labored as the expensive cowboy-rock to which it’s wedded. This nonsense is worthy of a “Sex in the City” character, as embarrassing as the freshly divorced mother of a buddy who wears a short skirt and orders a sour apple martini.
The likes of Greil Marcus have always been suspicious (“As great an emotional fraud as Destiny’s Child—wins the prize over them as the most mannered singer in pop music because she’s been fooling people with it longer” is only one of many splendid denunciations), and, in the long term, he may be right. Return, however, to Sweet Old World and that glorious 1988 record. She reminded you of Chrissie, yes, but her squealing love of the vulgar recalled Poly Styrene, her avidity recalled Sinead O’Connor’s—like that. A shame an NPR market supercilious of the mercenary likes of Sheryl Crow has forced her to record songs that Crow herself would consider models of autumnal acuity. Williams can keep feeling herself up if she likes. Sooner or later she’s going to leave the house.