Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Decline and Fall of Lucinda Williams

Usually Pitchfork irritates me to no end. But I could not possibly agree more with the summary of her post-Car Wheels work in a review for her not exciting sounding new album:

The 2000s were Lucinda Williams' most prolific decade, as well as her most conflicted. She released four studio albums and one double live, more than matching her output for the previous two decades combined. Drifting away from country music (which had little use for her as a songwriter or as a performer) and toward a gritty strain of roots rock, Williams grew more confessional in her lyrics, which have grown blatantly autobiographical and have coalesced into a larger story built around her romantic ups and downs. Rather than refining her craft, this development has actually had a deleterious effect on her music. In contrast to her first two country-blues albums and her three truly country albums, her four records from the previous decade have been alternately alienating and ingratiating, self-indulgent and self-denying-- eager both to please an audience and disdain them. Her once effortless lyricism has become rigid and workmanlike, with clich├ęd phrases standing in for complex evocations and words seemingly chosen less for their intrinsic meaning and more for their adherence to her AABB rhyme schemes.

In a sense, I don't have a problem with her not being good anymore. How many songwriters have one album as good as Sweet Old World? Almost none. It happens--artists have only so much great stuff to give to the world. My bigger problem is that people still think these new albums are good--tickets to see her perform are very expensive and her bad albums sell far better than her old great records. 

I blame fame. When Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out in 1998, it was hailed everywhere. And for good reason; it's a tremendous album. But like a lot of artists, fame changed her work for the worse. Lucinda reminds me a bit of The Band--both toiled in obscurity for a very long time producing amazing music and both struggled to adjust artistically when fame transformed their lives. To a lesser extent, Alejandro Escovedo is in the same boat--he's finally selling albums, opening for the Rolling Stones, and having real success, but it's off the least satisfying albums of his long and wonderful career.

It's gotten to the point where if I hear someone extol the virtues of post-1998 Lucinda, I simply question the taste of the individual. Because it's likely that they heard Lucinda was great from so many people that they are parroting that line. Surely actually listening to her body of work wouldn't lead to the conclusion that albums like West and Little Honey have much value.