Lucinda Williams is that most frustrating of singer-songwriters. At her best, she is capable of a sublime artistry of breathtaking directness. At her worst, she is clunky and forced, and risks trivialising some of her intense personal experiences. Her recent albums all seem to have been inspired to some degree by crises, and 'West' is certainly no different, having been composed following the death of her mother and the breakdown of a rather fraught relationship. These personal difficulties clearly inspired Williams to write a wealth of material, and 'West' is as a result somewhat overlong. I could have done without the nine minutes of ghastly cod-rapping on 'Wrap My Head Around That', although arty producer Hal Wilner probably deserves an equal share of the blame for that. The album also opens fairly inconspicuously with 'Are You Alright?', an undeniably pretty song, but with lyrics as cliched as its much-repeated title ('all of a sudden you went away...I hope you come back around someday' etc).
There are other ways, however, in which a case can be built for 'West' as Williams' best work to date. Over the course of her recent albums, particularly 'Essence' and 'World Without Tears', Williams has been gradually abandoning the dusty country rock on which she built her reputation in favour of restrained, floaty and ethereal mood pieces. This sound reaches its apotheosis here, mostly aided by Wilner's production (at least when it's sensitive), and heavily supported by the intuitive and emotive playing of versatile guitar legend Bill Frisell. Another session legend in the form of drummer Jim Keltner offers dependable musical sensibility. There's still variety on display here, but the predominant mood is melancholic and haunting.
There are some wonderful songs here, from the great outpouring of feeling on 'Mama You Sweet' and the deftly poetic 'Words' ('I would rather suffer in sweet silent solitude/Deathly defiant from drowning out/Filthy sounds stumbling ugly and crude/Between the lips of your beautiful mouth' - is this really the same lyricist behind 'Are You Alright?') to the sweetly observed 'Fancy Funeral'. Williams has now mastered her songwriting formula, essentially depending on a careful and considered marriage of words, phrasing and melody for which her gritty, untutored voice is ideally suited. She does not have great range or technique, but there's a wealth of emotion in those cracked intonations, mostly displayed with admirable candour.
As a result, she can do the sultry and lusty as convincingly as the mordant and ruminative. 'Unsuffer Me' and the Neil Young-esque trudge of 'Come On' (all playful self-righteousness and innuendo - 'you didn't even make me.....come on!') are both close relations of the outstading 'Atonement' from 'World Without Tears'. So, whilst many of these songs are intensely sad, there's also a dogged determination for self-preservation too, most evident on the slight beam of hope provided by the closing title track and the endearing, touching 'Learning How To Live'.
Whatever one feels about Williams' inconsistency, there's no denying that, much like the graceful Emmylou Harris, she has really matured as an artist relatively late in life. 'West' is a moving, elegiac story of grief and love lost with which many people will easily connect. Forget the crass, manipulative emoting of Snow Patrol, Keane and their horrific ilk, and discover something truthful and hard won. It may sometimes be a lonely and desolate landscape, but sometimes heading out West isn't just illuminating - it's necessary.