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Lucinda Williams
Lost Highway Records

Even the most revered artists make mediocre albums. Neil Young made a handful of them during the 1980s alone. Even the great Bob Dylan has records like Knocked Out Loaded and Under The Red Sky to his credit. With Lucinda Williams, though, it's always seemed different. A well-documented perfectionist, Williams released just six albums between 1980 and 2003, but her fans' patience was always rewarded with another masterpiece. Her seamless blend of rock, country, blues, and folk was most fully realized on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, her career-defining (and Grammy-winning) 1998 release, but most of the others in her catalog come close to matching its greatness.

So, with the weight of expectation hanging heavily on each new Lucinda Williams album, it may have been inevitable that she would release an album like West, her disappointing eighth full-length. West is riddled with unimpressive lyrics and some of her least engaging music. The record does benefit from spare, intimate production that gives her songs a disarming immediacy. A number of the quieter tracks, most notably the minimalist and stirring "Mama You Sweet," settle into a captivating, hypnotic groove. Williams turns up the volume for the record's finest moment, the vicious blues-rock of "Come On," a bittersweet indictment of a former lover. The reflective title track is also stunning, bringing West to a poignant conclusion much like "Jackson" did on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Unfortunately, for every standout on West, Williams offers an underdeveloped track that might have fit in better on a future b-sides compilation.

Much of the music on West comes close to equaling Williams' prior releases, but she undermines a number of well-written songs with predictable, uncharacteristically trite poetry. What's most frustrating is that Williams' commitment to her songs, made obvious by her impassioned vocals, is betrayed by an attempt to express her feelings in simple, unadorned language. She has always had a tendency to repeat lines and phrases in songs like "Lonely Girls," the minimalist opener to her 2001 release Essence, but the repetition on tracks like the album-opening "Are You Alright?" can be more tiresome than poignant. On "Learning How To Live," Williams offers up poetry too plainspoken for an artist of her stature. "I can't forget and I won't even try / to erase your image and the way you made me cry," she sings. An affecting vocal performance can't redeem a forgettable song.

Williams has earned the right to make an album as uneven as West, but it remains a letdown and a tremendous drop in quality from her recent masterpieces. The record hardly suggests that her talents are dried up, as the best moments on West prove that she is still a masterful songwriter and performer. It is a disappointing effort, but an emotionally complex, entertaining disappointment. It's hard to imagine Williams' muse will stay down for long, so West is likely a minor misstep in a career that has been as consistently stellar as any a singer-songwriter has ever had.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. Are You Alright?
2. Mama You Sweet
3. Learning How To Live
4. Fancy Funeral
5. Unsuffer Me
6. Everything Has Changed
7. Come On
8. Where Is My Love?
9. Rescue
10. What If
11. Wrap My Head Around That
12. Words
13. West

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