And so the woman with the voice that Emmylou Harris memorably described as capable of “peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch” returns with her eighth studio album. After years of lengthy gaps between recordings, Williams has become positively prolific since the release of 1998′s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (recently given the Deluxe Edition double-disc treatment), putting out Essence, World Without Tears and Live @ The Fillmore to ever increasing amounts of critical acclaim. For production duties on West she’s roped in Hal Willner, best known for his work with the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, whose bruised 1987 album Strange Weather has been an avowed influence on some of Williams’s recent music. (Indeed, at times Williams seems intent on turning herself into a Faithfull of the South, a weather-beaten, down-but-not-out ‘survivor’).
Willner’s presence has led some critics to describe the new album as an exercise in experimentation, and it’s certainly true that Williams is continuing to move away from the country/folk/blues-infused sounds of her earliest work into ambient rock territory. But, to these ears at least, West sounds less like an experimental record than a synthesis of her post-Car Wheels… output, favouring atmosphere over narrative, the ‘universal’ over the rooted and specific. And, unfortunately, like much of her recent work, the album fails to entirely cohere.
Backed by a sturdy group of musicians (Jenny Scheinman’s violin-playing is particularly noteworthy), including regular collaborators Doug Pettibone (guitars) and Jim Keltner (drums/percussion), Williams traverses (overly) familiar thematic territory throughout West, focusing upon love, lust and loss, travel, time and memory. Opener ‘Are You Alright?’ finds her at her most seductive and accessible, building an infectious melody around a series of heartfelt pleas to hear from an errant lover. Though marred by trite lyrics, the jaunty ‘Learning How To Live’ is a more optimistic, less self-pitying break-up song than we’ve come to expect from her, tempering its regret with a healthy dose of country stoicism and the resolve to “make the most of what you left me with”.
Elsewhere, ‘Fancy Funeral’ could be a sombre companion piece to Kate Campbell’s wry song ‘Funeral Food’, with Williams offering a similarly critical analysis of Southern traditions and a gentle reminder that “no amount of rituals will bring back what you’ve lost”. The fierce ‘Come On’ (a cousin of World Without Tears‘s scabrous ‘Atonement’) features a searing electric guitar part perfectly in sync with Williams’s scary vocal and allows her to fulfil her post-Car Wheels… criteria of including one expletive per album. Finally, the title track closes proceedings on a truly gorgeous note of expectation. Perhaps reflecting Williams’s optimism about her recent engagement, the song is an elegant invitation to a lover that manages to convey both the joy at the opportunity offered by a new relationship and a mature acceptance of its probable transience: “Come out west and see… / I know you won’t stay permanently / But come out west and see”.
In between, however, there are more than a few places in which West goes south. ‘Mama You Sweet’, ostensibly about the death of Williams’s mother, gets bogged down in would-be poetic imagery, while ‘Unsuffer Me’ is a slightly embarrassing litany of desires featuring the torturous (and grammatically questionable) command “unbound my feet”. ‘Rescue’ flirts feebly with Beth Orton, and the wretched ‘What If’ proffers a sequence of asinine speculations about a world in which “dogs became kings” and “birds had bank accounts”. ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ is even weaker, a dour inventory of complaints every bit as awkward as its title and stretched out over an excruciating nine minutes. After the similarly unconvincing ‘American Dream’ on World Without Tears, what Williams really needs is a producer brave enough to tell her that rapping might not be such a great idea.
Listening to these tracks, it’s hard not to feel that the increased speed of her output has resulted in an associated dip in quality, for, ever since Essence, the detailed, narrative elements of her songs have been replaced by more general statements, sometimes of a rather banal nature. Most problematic of all is her tendency to use a similar compositional style; in too many places on West she falls back on repetitious listing song structures that suggest she’s been bitten by the Alanis Morissette bug. Those who make inflated claims for Williams as a great lyricist — a Faulkner or Welty of song — will have their work cut out trying to defend the repetitive structures employed throughout, not to mention some decidedly dodgy rhymes (“eyes” and “guys”, “kid” and “did”, “danger” and “stranger”, “gum” and, er, “bum”). What’s missing is the rich, vivid detail that characterised her earlier slice-of-Southern-life songs such as ‘The Night’s Too Long’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. There’s no “smell of coffee, eggs and bacon”, no “Loretta singing on the radio” here.
With the lyrics tending toward the uninspired, it’s left up to Williams’s vocals to add complexity and nuance. Blessed with one of the most instantly recognisable voices in contemporary music, she sounds less mannered than of late here, and her elegantly weary slurring and snarling commands your attention even when the words let her down. While Williams’s intention to shake off the traditional roots music shackles is admirable, it’s a shame that she insists upon straying into areas in which she seems less than comfortable. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, West is a warmer, less abrasive album than World Without Tears and one that features some strong material.
[Lost Highway; February 19, 2007]
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