CD Review: Lucinda Williams, “Blessed”

Lucinda Williams - BlessedOnly a couple of months in and 2011 is already looking like a strong year for music. Recently, I’ve been impressed by new albums from the Twilight Singers, the Low Anthem, and Middle Brother. In the coming weeks we will have new albums from Robbie Robertson and Paul Simon, among others. So there is still much to look forward to.

In the midst of all of this good music along comes Lucinda Williams with her new album, Blessed (Lost Highway), and you can add it to the list of this year’s best music. I won’t call it a return to form, because Williams has never made an album that I didn’t like, but it is her best effort since 2001’s Essence, which I consider to be her best.

Williams has always been known for her great atmospheric ballads, and there is no shortage of them here, including the soulful “Convince Me,” the world-weary “Copenhagen,” and the emotionally devastating album-closer “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” which ranks up there with the best work that Williams has ever done as a songwriter.

As much as I enjoy the slower paced songs, I have always enjoyed it when Williams dials up the volume, and the intensity. She does that a couple of times on Blessed, beginning with the lead-off track, a powerful kiss-off called “Buttercup,” a title which belies the barely contained rage (“You already sucked me dry, can’t do it anymore honey. You roughed me up and made me cry, now you want to borrow money.”) to be found in the lyrics. Williams wrote “Seeing Black” for her friend, singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt who committed suicide on Christmas Day in 2009, and it is one of the most powerful songs that she has ever written. There are five stages of grief, and Williams is clearly in the anger stage as she addresses the lyrics directly to her lost friend:

When you made the decision to get off this ride
Did you run out of places to go and hide
Did you know everybody would be surprised
When you made the decision to get off this ride

Not only is Williams a great songwriter, singer, and performer, she is infallible when it comes to choosing musicians to accompany her. This is particularly true in the the guitar section of her bands over the years. Great players like Kenny Vaughan and J.J. Jackson (who were paired in my favorite Williams band), Gurf Morlix, Doug Pettibone, and Bo Ramsey have all been part of the mix at one time or another. On Blessed there is stunning guitar work from Greg Leisz and Val McCallum, and a blazing guest spot from Elvis Costello on “Seeing Black.” The album was impeccably produced by Don Was with Tom Overby, and Eric Liljestrand.

Lucinda Williams is a true American original. After years in the wilderness, she has finally find an oasis of calm in her life. At the same time, she hasn’t forgotten how to get in touch with the anger and pain within her, and it makes for a brilliant, volatile mix. The albums at the top of my 2011 list seem to be changing on a weekly basis. Blessed has taken its place there now.

  • judd6149

    I agree with you Ken, this album is finding it’s way to the top of my growing 2011 heap. What I am enjoying is her singing. At times that drawl turns into a sultry slur. The vocals are upfront in the mix and lead the songs from out in front. I like that.

    The music is just left enough of americana’s center to have a bit more rock feel to it. I like that, too. Many more listens on the way this year.

  • kshane

    I’ll tell you one thing, if you listen to songs like “Buttercup,” you know you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side.

  • Chimesfreedom

    I agree that “Blessed” is one of the best CDs of the year so far. I’ve been listening to it since its release and it continues to grow on me, so at this point I can’t yet rank it among her other work (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” has always been one of my favorite albums since its release, but I agree that “Essence” is also outstanding). On “Blessed,” one of the highlights for me is the haunting and hypnotic title track, which I loved the first time I heard it on the radio before the CD was released.

  • billy budapest

    Boring by the middle of the third song.

  • John Walker

    I saw the show tonight in Irvine and heard “Blessed” for the first time, one of her very best. Now listening to the whole album- I feel blessed.