lately i have been listening to everything lucinda williams ever recorded, from the girlish first forays around 1979 to the latest shattering expressions of age and regret, as in the masterpiece "kiss like your kiss." i sort of hate to love lucinda, because she is relatively popular in my demographic. nevertheless i love her music inordinately and also i have a crush, though obviously she is a handful. i see that some people find that hoarse thing and also the wandering pitch to be unlistenable: kind of the way i feel about neil young. but i love every frigging burr on that voice; every time she wanders off-key it sounds right to me. sometimes someone just brings you along; i regard even her clumsy lyric moments (with some exceptions) as a kind of charming directness or a signifier of sincerity.
i think one thing is the variety and the coherence: everything she has ever recorded takes place in relation to american roots traditions, but looking at the oeuvre, she works with and from very many forms: cajun, country, folk, tex-mex, blues, gospel. she ranges vocally from an almost dolly-like pure soprano to a marianne faithfull croak. she loves to rock out, but no one can write a more unbelievably gorgeous extremely slow song and just frame it in crystal, as in 'i envy the wind' or 'blue.' and no one could possibly sing those songs as well as she does. she has essentially one theme: the dusky fatal romanticism of loving junkie poets who play the guitar in filthy bars. but never has desperate fucked-up love been explored in so many registers, from ecstatic to enraged to melancholic. wait two themes: she romanticizes the american south in every aspect, its every cricket and puddle, particularly east texas and lousiana: she's practically written a map of the towns in that region. i love this about her and it connects her writing fundamentally to both the blues and country traditions.
my honey judith bradford introduced me to her stuff in the early 90s; no doubt she 'knew' the bass player. anyway, that was the era of lucinda williams (1988) and sweet old world (1992). these albums feature some of the best country and rock writing of that era; of course 'sweet old world' is the most beautiful thing ever written; the playing and production by gurf morlix is exemplary; poppy in a way but not fully nashville commercial. surely one purpose of these discs was to demo the songs in nashville, and she scored for mary-chapin carpenter ('passionate kisses') and patty loveless (a wonderful performance of 'the night's too long'). still these albums have many eccentric moments or suddenly break into acoustic blues straight from the howling heart of the delta. maybe someone thought she could be a country star, but obviously not. but she is a great great country singer and writer. to me her four strongest albums are those two, car wheels on a gravel road (1998), and essence (2001). lucinda williams is hard to get ahold of; it must be in some stupid copyright limbo.
judith also adored those first forays, happy woman blues (1980) and ramblin (1979). these give a lovely rough acoustic frame to a series of covers/bent versions of classic country, gospel, and blues songs, with some originals. she almost sounds like mac wiseman with an extreme showy old-time vibrato at times, but listen to her kill something like "great speckled bird," one of the great curiosities in american song. obviously she is not trying to sing on-key, but i wouldn't say the roughness is affected: lucinda always sounds authentic to me, even if her dad was a prof. it wells from the heart and from a complete internalization of american roots music.
i hate to agree with all the critics, but car wheels on a gravel road is a masterpiece, and i say the same about its successor essence. they add a fierce rock element at times, and she has continued occasionally in that vein on subsequent albums, as in 'seeing black' or 'come on.' but really her normal mode is slow and simple or beautiful or at its worst, dirge-like. world without tears (2003) is weak and depressive, i think, and it's not insane to skip west (2007) and little honey (2008), though there are great moments. but blessed (2011) has some extremely strong writing, and she recapitulates the album to a recorder in her kitchen all alone; some of these performances are really shattering, as in, again, 'kiss like your kiss.' at this point her work constitutes an autobiography, and i don't think any recording artist or songwriter has ever faced up more squarely to ageing; she's about 60 now; she can't write about boys the way she did when she was 40. but this material is so honest, even with very clumsy or too-explicit moments, that it is a worthy inheritor of the earlier phases.
i believe i'd do her up with a bit more dignity: less makeup and desperate-sexy clothes; she can't be a sexy girl singer anymore, if she ever really could; she should be a treasure of american song, like say johnny cash in the 90s. vintage dresses maybe (but i run afoul of taylor swift's dictum that no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity). however, quibbling with the way someone looks in the face of a song and a performance like that is trivial.
ok here's a 40-song best of, very carefully considered. this is surely, for one thing, one of the great bodies of songwriting in this era.
Those Three Days
I Envy The Wind
Am I Too Blue
Sweet Old World
Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)
Right In Time
Kiss Like Your Kiss
Great Speckled Bird
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Learning How to Live
Six Blocks Away
One Night Stand
I Just Wanted To See You So Bad
Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor
Prove My Love
Sweet Old World
The Night's Too Long
Circles and X's
Side Of The Road [Live]
Kiss Like Your Kiss (The Kitchen Tapes)
I Lost It
I Asked For Water He Gave Me Gasoline
Greenville (with Emmylou Harris)
Still I Long For Your Kiss
I Don't Know How You're Livin'
Buttercup (The Kitchen Tapes)
Howlin' at Midnight
Big Red Sun Blues
Gurf Morlix, "Center Of The Universe" (in my head anyway this is about lucinda)
Mary-Chapin Carpenter, "Passionate Kisses"
Patty Loveless, "The Night's Too Long"