Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lucinda Williams

  • Happy Woman Blues [Folkways, 1980] A-
  • Lucinda Williams [Rough Trade, 1988] A
  • Passionate Kisses [Rough Trade EP, 1989] B+
  • Sweet Old World [Chameleon, 1992] A
  • Car Wheels on a Gravel Road [Mercury, 1998] A+
  • Essence [Lost Highway, 2001] A-
  • World Without Tears [Lost Highway, 2003] A-
  • Live at the Fillmore [Lost Highway, 2005]  
  • West [Lost Highway, 2007] A
  • Little Honey [Lost Highway, 2008] ***
  • Blessed [Lost Highway, 2011] B+
  • Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone [Highway 20, 2014] B+
  • The Ghosts of Highway 20 [Highway 20, 2016] *
  • Good Souls Better Angels [Highway 20, 2020] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Happy Woman Blues [Folkways, 1980]
Having pledged allegiance with an album of traditional material that won't give anybody new insights into Robert Johnson, this guileless throwback to the days of the acoustic blues mamas follows through with an album of originals that won't give anybody new insights into men, solitude, or making music. But here's something to mull over--you'll love it. Partly because she means what she says and says what she means, and partly because she has a way of flatting key lines that's as fetching as the dimples on your bedmate's ass. But mostly because contemporary doesn't mean hip, cool, or fashionable--it means knowing what time it is. A-

Lucinda Williams [Rough Trade, 1988]
The side-openers--"I Just Wanted To See You So Bad," which repeats the title nine times in 21 lines, and "Passionate Kisses," the last of a series of modest demands that begins with a bed that won't hurt her back (a good bed to sleep in, that means)--are winners as written, avid and sensible and all Lucinda. After that the songs are fine, but it's down to a big not enormous, handsome not beautiful voice that's every bit as strong as the will of this singer-by-nature and writer-by-nurture. So at home in blues and country that she won't abide a rock and roll pigeonhole, she fought seven years to do an album her way. She can make a winner out of any song that spurns the clichés she's too avid and sensible to resort to, and why any record man would want to order her around I can only guess. Maybe because she seems just an inch's compromise away from a hit. But that inch is why her rock and roll traditionalism still sounds fresh. A

Passionate Kisses [Rough Trade EP, 1989]
Pointing frantically at the title song, Rough Trade remixes it, adds an old version of another LP cut and three live country blues, and prays for airplay. Not the EP as interim product--the EP as promotional device. B+

Sweet Old World [Chameleon, 1992]
On two songs as lived in as their titles, "Lines Around Your Eyes" and "Something About What Happens When We Talk," a star-crossed poet of the everyday grows into middle-aged love. The fetishized tire iron and casserole of "Hot Blood" romanticize attraction and commitment with a lit major's passion. And then there's death. The most powerful track on this Springsteen-meticulous work of songcraft is the raw, bare, strophic threnody "Pineola," where the truest poetic stroke is the bereftly banal "And they went to call someone." So, do the boys who inspired "He Never Got Enough Love" and "Little Angel, Little Brother" actually die, by which I mean fictionally die? Maybe not, but it sounds like they do. Death is how she knows the world is sweet. Music is how she tries to convince the rest of us. A

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road [Mercury, 1998]
Williams hasn't just perfected a style, she's mastered a subject. She doesn't just write realistically and music traditionally, she describes and evokes Southerners for whom realism and traditionalism are epistemological givens. She writes for them, too--not exclusively, she hopes, but in the first instance. They are her people and her neighbors, with damn few media-savvy professionals among them. So reassuring shows of hip come no more naturally to her finely worked, cannily roughed up songs than pop universality. Situated in a subculture far removed from both Manhattan and Alternia, these indelible melodies and well-turned lyrics constitute a dazzling proof of the viability of her world and a robust argument for its values. Emotion makes you smirk? Local color has no place in your global mall? Well, you have Lucinda Williams to answer to. Because this is where she establishes herself as the most accomplished record-maker of the age. A+

Essence [Lost Highway, 2001]
See: Encore From a Utopia. A-

World Without Tears [Lost Highway, 2003]
Like Dylan before her, she discovers how hard it is to write the simple ones. She also discovers how hard it is to turn out an album every two years. So she stops at pretty good songs instead of worrying them toward great, and just in time. Concrete nouns are her passion, but here sometimes they break the mood, and when she pulls out her place-name trick she goes nowhere. To compensate, she sidles up to her beau ideal--a band record, a groove record, a riff record; something lowdown, dirty, smoky. Why not? Sue Foley has never recorded a lyric as strong as "Those Three Days" or "Sweet Side" in her life. And a strong Sue Foley album can hold up the sweet old world for a spell. A-

Live at the Fillmore [Lost Highway, 2005]
There's no point questioning Lucinda Williams's talent, or her perfectionism. Of course her first live album sounds dandy. There isn't a bad song or performance on it. Unfortunately, there isn't a new song or performance on it either. Every one of its 22 tracks appears in pretty much the same form on one of her painstaking studio albums--including, in an apparent world record, all 13 of the titles on 2003's mildly underrated World Without End. We don't appreciate her new songs, huh? Well, she'll show us--she'll release them again two years later. Sure they have a little more oomph this time. But why the devotees who adore everything she does need more proof that she's an effective bandleader is something her label would surely like to know. [Blender: 3]  

West [Lost Highway, 2007]
The young are right to think she's old--having finally broken through at 45, she's now 54. She affects authenticity as shamelessly as her role model, Bob Dylan. But with respect to all the other noble old pros deploying blues and country readymades, the craftiness of Williams' vocals, meaning their unnaturalness, secures their vitality. She doesn't fake spontaneity--she honors it as one of the constellation of life virtues she hopes her songs evoke and subsume. Protruding from this metaphysical quest, her palpable concern for her ex-lover and warm affection for her mom are strengthened rather than compromised, and when she disses her dead mom's funeral, the bile seems organic by contrast. Certainly not what I would call soul. But it knows things about soul that the soulful may not. A

Little Honey [Lost Highway, 2008]
Her band jams for real as her songs bewail the artist's plight or just stay out of the way ("Honey Bee," "Real Love"). ***

Blessed [Lost Highway, 2011]
Maddening. Songwise it's a comeback--seven-eight repeaters compared to Little Honey's five, which I just went back and counted because they were so indelible I thought there must be more. Unfortunately, there aren't. Then again, indelible these aren't--too mushy around the edges. Williams has always worked her drawl, but here the extended vowels and slurred consonants tempt one to suspect she's afraid "We were blessed by the watchmaker/Who gave up his time" won't stand up straight next to "We were blessed by the wounded man/Who felt no pain." Unfortunately, it won't, and similar shortfalls cripple "Soldier Song" just before. What makes me half believe I'll want to hear this album again is the drawn-out religious rumination "Awakening," where vagueness signifies, and every solo Val McCallum gets. Atmospheric. Play loud anyway, so it won't be. B+

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone [Highway 20, 2014]
You'll never guess--a double album that would be punchier as a single! It doesn't help that the 20 tracks average over five minutes apiece, so that the philosophical grist of "Temporary Nature (of Any Precious Thing)," for instance, leaches what value its no-love-without-loss wheeze has as the song refuses to end. My strategy, which I've made a reality in my iTunes folder, is to finish off the top five of disc one with--somewhat less sure-shottedly--the bottom four of disc two. The political to the personal. Nine-minute cover to wander out on. Title: Down to the Bone. B+

The Ghosts of Highway 20 [Highway 20, 2016]
Fine but increasingly long-winded bandleader splits the difference between po'-faced and lugubrious by mourning her father and salvaging a few outtakes. ("If My Love Could Kill," "Doors of Heaven") *

Good Souls Better Angels [Highway 20, 2020]
Leave it to an unabashed egoist to voice the anti-Trump wrath timider songslingers don't have the gall for, and to save the direct hit "Man Without a Soul" for track three so as to ramp it up with the defiant "You Can't Rule Me" and the bitter "Bad News Blues": "Liars and lunatics/Fools and thieves/And clowns and hypocrites" whose "Gluttony and greed/And that ain't the worst of it" are everywhere--in her car and in the bar and at the damn laundromat. Then it's on to our unnamed president, about whom she's not the first to observe that "All the money in the world/Will never fill that hole," just the first to attach a tune to it, and with other points to add at that. Some of the bleakness that ensues is personal: memory-stoked nightmares if not nightmare memories, songs in a second person I hope isn't camouflage. But then there's an updated "John the Revelator" where God is "spinning the world like a top": "Liars are venerated/Losers congratulated/Cheaters celebrated/Thieves compensated/Vultures satiated/Murderers exonerated/Guilty vindicated/Innocent incarcerated." Her voice and her guitar attack have thickened. But that just adds to the outraged gravity of an album that I wish had more competition. A

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