with video: Lucinda Williams playing rare (and sold out) date at The Ark
Lucinda Williams’ new album, slated for March 1 release, is titled “Blessed.”
And she’s now happily married, after going through a few rocky romances and stormy breakups. And she concedes that the album is generally positive in nature (compared to some of her other discs over the past decade, which plumbed some harrowing emotional depths).
But, says Williams, “’Blessed’ is not my so-called ‘happy album.’
“Yes, I’m in love, and I’m happy in my personal life. There aren’t all those unrequited love, ‘I’ve been shot down by a bad boy songs’ — well, there’s one of those — but there are songs about all sorts of things. It’s just a lot easier to stretch these days,” said Williams in an interview she conducted for her new bio for her record company, Lost Highway. As a result of “feeling comfortable in my life, I’ve been able to go outside myself and write about other things.”
“Blessed” was recorded at the end of what she described as “a really big writing streak that gave me enough to make two albums.” While the subject matter varies from song to song, Williams mostly adopts a conversational tone in the songs, several of which have the same short-story quality that we’ve come to expect from her. And a few of the songs address some personal losses that Williams has gone through in the last few years.
But by album’s end, the listener is left with a general sense of affirmation — which we also caught a glimpse of on her 2008 release, “Little Honey” — a tone that came as a relief after a period when she’d released several downbeat discs in a row that were dominated by brooding tempos.
Williams comes to The Ark on Wednesday for a rare solo-acoustic show in an intimate setting. Typically, when she performs live, she plays larger venues, like the Michigan Theater, with a full band. The show is sold out.
“Blessed” commences with a rough-edged “kiss-off” song, “Buttercup,” which gives way to “I Don’t Know How You’re Living” — a sparsely-arranged track in which Williams sings plaintively about hope. “Copenhagen” is a requiem of sorts for her manager, who died in ‘07, and her sense of loss is underscored by Williams' pensive vocals and a crying pedal-steel guitar. Then comes the simmering, slow-burn blues of “Born To Be Loved.”
Meanwhile, the extremely-personal “Seeing Black” sifts through the emotional rubble that was left behind after singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, a friend of Williams', committed suicide on Christmas Day, 2009. In the song, Williams poses some unflinching but poignant questions to her now-deceased friend about the choice he made. (Chesnutt, a quadriplegic since his teens due to a car accident, reportedly owed $70,000 in medical bills and needed more surgery he couldn’t afford.) Musically, though, the track is not downcast — it’s a foursquare rocker propelled by some scathing, scorched-earth guitar work by guest Elvis Costello.
The mood brightens on the sensual “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” and “Sweet Love” is all warm and comfy.
“I didn’t have a fully realized picture of what I wanted the album to sound like going in, but I hardly ever do,” said Williams in the Lost Highway interview. “Back when I was playing open mic nights by myself, I’d be sitting up there with my Martin guitar and doing ‘Angel’ by Jimi Hendrix or ‘Politician’ by Cream’ alongside Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie songs. It never occurred to me to pick just one style. That’s stayed with me ever since. ”
Indeed, ever since she caught the ears of the roots-rock faithful with her self-titled 1988 album, Williams has shown a flair for synergizing the jangly folk-rock of the Byrds, the feral blues of Muddy Waters, the down-home country of Hank Williams and the swaggering blues-rock of the Stones.
(Williams’ debut album actually came a decade earlier, with “Ramblin’,” a collection of blues and country standards that she recorded for $250 and got little attention.)
Upon the release of “Lucinda Williams” in 1988, she was a cult fave right off the bat, and soon became known for her meticulous approach to making records. Four years passed before she released her ‘92 follow-up, “Sweet Old World.”
After that, her attention to detail and exacting standards started to earn her a rep as a perfectionist: she worked on her next album for six years — fully completing one version of the album before firing her longtime guitarist and producer, Gurf Morlix, and starting all over. That album was the breakthrough disc “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” which, after its ’98 release, caused many critics to hurl precious metal at her feet — and prompted both Rolling Stone and Time magazine to anoint her as “America’s greatest songwriter.”
There is indeed a poetic quality to Williams’ songwriting, which she comes by naturally: Her father, Miller Williams, is an award-winning poet — who she says provided her with a “culturally rich, but economically poor” upbringing — but one where artistic expression was clearly a matter of family pride.
“Thanks to my dad, I grew up around poets and novelists and they all had families and normal lives and most of them didn’t achieve even nominal success until much later in life,” she recalled. “I have to keep reminding people that, yeah, I’m a musician, but first and foremost, I’m an artist, and art is about expression — about expressing your feelings about what you’re going through every day.
“And I think this is the closest I’ve come to capturing that essence completely as an artist.”