Roots-rock queen Lucinda Williams begins West, her ninth album, inquiring after a troubled pal, repeating her query like a mantra: ”Are you alright?/Is there something been bothering you/Are you alright?/I wish you’d give me a little clue.” Her concern sounds empathetic, but you may suspect the ”friend” she’s addressing in ”Are You Alright?” is really herself. Because she spends the rest of the CD forming her own answer, which is pretty much…No. ”Pain courses through every vein, every limb”; joy is ”vanished” in one song, ”dead” in another. This is dark-night-of-the-soul, hide-the-kitchen-utensils stuff — which makes West almost misleading as a title. What the record really chronicles is a heart gone seriously south.
Consider that a warning, but don’t let it send you in the opposite direction. As bummers go, West is a beautiful one — akin to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, a comparison you might leap to even if Williams hadn’t already declared the ’97 classic a huge influence on her recent writing. Like the Dylan of a decade ago, she’s lovesick (not for the first time, though the breakup immortalized here sounds especially brutal) as well as tangled up in the blueness of mortality (her mother’s death inspired several tunes). In the astoundingly miserable ”Unsuffer Me,” Williams sounds even more influenced by the lacerating, self-loathing lament psalms of the Old Testament. Backed by Bill Frisell’s howling guitar and some ”House of the Rising Sun” organ riffs, she begs a lover or God to ”Untie my wrists/Come into my world/Of loneliness/And wickedness/And bitterness.”
But that voice is a healing instrument unto itself, so she can take us only so low. Rock’s best female singer easily veers from city-slicker-smooth alto sweetness to ravaged Louisianan drawl. In ”Learning How to Live,” it sounds like she’s coming off an all-night heartache bender — but when vibrato breaks into that cracked rasp, it’s as magical as flowers busting through gravel. Anticipating Williams’ next phrasing is, moment to moment, a reason to live.
Relishing the intimacy, co-producer Hal Willner powers the settings down almost to the subliminal, making West Williams’ least rocking effort since her folk days. (The one track to get some noisy gander up is ”Come On,” where the enraged singer ridicules an ex’s sexual prowess.) But if there’s scant catharsis in the way of backbeats, this journey does end in the titular promised land after all, with Williams at peace in the desert, awaiting her new long-distance love. No telling how that one will turn out, but it’s reassuring to know that for the moment, the kid is alright.