Friday, June 19, 2009

End of the Aughts: Disappointments

Go to for the full list.

Lucinda Williams-Essence was saddled with heavy baggage from the start. As the follow up to Lucinda Williams' career-defining Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it had very little chance of surpassing its predecessor, at least in the minds of fans and critics who developed a borderline-obsessive devotion to that 1998 album. To Williams' credit, she didn't try to repeat Car Wheels' formula, instead abandoning that album's folk and country hybrid for Essence's atmospheric ballads. Though Williams didn't do her studio perfectionist/diva reputation any favors by taking nearly three years to release Essence, it was mostly worth the wait. It found Williams in a somber mood, with the mostly optimistic nostalgia and childhood memories of Car Wheels replaced by dark broodings about mortality and aging ("Bus To Baton Rouge"), loneliness ("Lonely Girls"), general sad shit ("Blue") and, of course, fucked up relationships ("Out Of Touch" and any other song you want to mention). A haze of regret and disappointment hung over most songs, with Williams' often-mangled vocals restrained, controlled and evocative of such moods. It remains Williams' darkest record to date; though Car Wheels still casts a long shadow over her entire career, Essence proves that the popular image of Williams as an alt.rock folkie is largely inaccurate.

It's also the last consistently good album Williams released this decade. Essence was followed in 2003 by the erratic and plodding World Without Tears, a meandering album that lacked much of the emotional resonance of the artist's previous work. Although Williams' unflinching lyrics were solid at times - especially in the used-like-a-cheap-whore laments of "Those Three Days" and "Minneapolis" - at least half the album was cluttered up by tedious vocals and bloated arrangements. "Righteously," "Sweet Side" and "Atonement" would have been best served relegated to the b-side shitbin, while "American Dream" and the title track were both preachy and pedantic.

And then the proverbial downward spiral really kicked in. The obligatory live album followed in 2005 with the dull Live @ The Fillmore; showing the complete lack of imagination we've come to expect from music labels, the release simply culled tracks from several different Fillmore shows, offering up bits and pieces instead of a complete show. The dual studio atrocities of West and Little Honey rounded out the decade and did nothing to offset this slipshod live product; taken together, they are underwhelming, self-indulgent and remarkably forgettable. West's songs were at least partially doomed by the album's lengthy running time - more than half its songs clocked in at over five minutes - though the stilted production did them no favors either. Little Honey was disturbingly lousy, with Williams offering up 13 mostly sappy odes to Love and that's with a big fat fucking capital L. It was everything fans thought Williams could never be: maudlin and melodramatic. The nausea countless listeners experienced wasn't due to a bad fish taco.

In interviews Williams has often bristled at such criticism, attributing the poor reception that greeted most of her albums this decade to a variety of reasons, commonly suggesting that fans and critics haven't given the albums a fair shake and simply want her to create Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Part II. It's a trite yet common complaint from musicians with lengthy careers - Dylan and Costello could pen on a book on this - but it's little more than a smokescreen. Few fans (or critics, for that matter) with an active interest in an artist's work want to hear mailed-in rehashes of that artist's masterwork. Of course there will always be musos stuck in a particular time and place; these are the people who keep nostalgia tours in business. The hard truth is that while Williams has admirably refused to settle into a particular style, most of her releases from this decade have been mediocre at best and inessential at worst. - Eric Dennis

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