Blessed by the presence of Lucinda Williams
Suicide among musicians is, sadly, far too common. Artistic temperaments, self-medication and substance abuse, depressive personalities and the ease with which musicians slip across to the dark side of life are all contributors.
That these people are often celebrities and write about these circumstances and tendencies – or have things written about them by others – draws greater attention to this cohort than is the case for many others who also suffer from the demons that can lead to self-loathing and harm.
On Christmas Day, 2009, the American singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt took his life after 26 years enduring the catastrophic consequences of a paralysing car accident (an event marked on this site). At the time news spread about Vic’s sad death, fellow singer-songwriter and friend Lucinda Williams (he wrote a song about her for his West of Rome album) was writing material for her latest record, Blessed.
Here’s Williams singing an acoustic version of the title track.
Inspired by the tragedy, Williams wrote a simply stunning song about suicide, Seeing Black, which asked a series of raw questions about taking this final step. From the start, Williams is brutally honest: “How did you come up with a day and time/You didn’t tell me you’d changed your mind”. Later, she lays down this desperate piece of bitter sorrow – “Was it hard to finally pull the plug/Was it hard to receive that final hug/Did evil triumph over love?”
Seeing Black is a searing piece of electric rock’n’roll, pushed along by some of the toughest, angriest guitar work heard in recent times. The player is Elvis Costello, opening up in away we have seldom heard him do. The blistering solo at the end of the song is worth the price of admission.
Williams is a native of Lake Charles in Louisiana and her new record is as good as anything she done through her 10 studio offerings over 32 years. It contains an impressive collection of songs, lyrically untouchable and sonically delightful, navigating topics from love, lost and found, to her late manager Frank Callari and the heavy burden of war.
Produced with a light touch of genius by Don Was, the album opens with a typical Williams kiss-off to a lover-turned-bad. Buttercup has this not-a-word-too-many couplet: “The first time I saw you, you made me melt/The last time I saw you, you hit below the belt”, in a spot-on alt-country fashion that recreates the 1998 Grammy-winning sound of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Interestingly, Williams says Buttercup is about the same “bad boy” who was the subject of Jailhouse Tears, a wry duet she performed with Costello on her last disc, Little Honey. You can watch a video of Buttercup here.
There’s plenty of loving and longing confession and questioning through other songs (“There’ll never be a kiss like your kiss”, “My breath is yours to share” and “Even if it takes all night, please, please, please, convince me” are lines that will strike a chord with Williams’s fans) while the sad, sad sorrow of a brother who’s become estranged runs deep in I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’ (“I’ve supported you/Encouraged you/Comforted and consoled you/I don’t know where you’re livin’”).
As well as Seeing Black, the strongest tunes are the title track, Copenhagen (the tribute to Callari), Ugly Truth and Soldier’s Song. Blessed is a superb piece of writing, reminiscent in some ways of early Bob Dylan, setting up contrasts, paradoxes and seeming contradictions – from the blind man who could see for miles to the watchmaker who gave up his time and the homeless man who showed the way home. Through all of these, says Williams, we are blessed. Copenhagen is a straightforward eulogy, an acknowledgment that “you have been released/you are flecks of light/you are missed”.
Ugly Truth is a song to those close pals who screw up their lives but still retain friendship and faith. “No one but you and God will ever know,” sings Williams. “And you might play rough and win or lose/Either way, love, you’ll get the blues.”
In a compelling rock’n’roots tunes that stands with Williams’s very best work. Soldier’s Song is a poem home from the front line, a message to a child from a war that has no meaning. It’s graphic (“Both my buddy’s legs got blown off/Baby tends to the little one’s cough” and “Today I took a bullet through the heart/Baby’s gonna have to make a brand new start”) but it refrains from the polemical, preferring to offer a reflection with a vocal laden with the weight of the dead.
As well as Costello playing lead and rhythm guitar on four songs – Seeing Black, Buttercup, Soldier’s Song and Convince Me – there’s some other brilliant guest spots, with Rami Jaffe on keyboards including some rollicking accordian, Matthew Sweet’s vocal and Greg Leisz on guitar.
It’s a great Lucinda Williams album standing on the shoulders of its towering lyrical strength. Williams’s father, Miller, is one of America’s most celebrated living poets who once said his daughter would send lyrics to him and he’d offer suggestions.
In recent years, he added, he was sending back the sheets without hardly a mark. You get the feeling this set of songs would have been returned untouched. Listeners will be blessed.
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