If Williams seems to be drifting into the past tense when she mentions her insecurities, that’s certainly reflected on West (Lost Highway), the third studio album she’s released since Car Wheels came out eight years ago. Some are already calling it her best album yet, or at least her best album since . . . What’s clear from the very start is that it’s the loosest, most diverse and comfortable-sounding album since 1988’s Lucinda Williams, her first proper alt-country disc after two early recordings that stuck to a bluesy blueprint, somewhere between the studied picking of Rory Block and the gutsy slide of Bonnie Raitt. You can even hear her laughing after “Wrap My Head Around That,” a song that carries echoes of her bluesy beginnings, ends with a dissonance-laced guitar solo by Bill Frisell, and then segues into the poetic, melodic, and invitingly folksy “Words” with a random snippet of a string section. It’s as if she couldn’t believe she’s letting any of this happen on one of her recordings and can’t do anything but laugh.
West does come across as the kind of album she’s been working toward recording since she got the monkey of Car Wheels off her back, a modern classic that’s already gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Last fall, Island put out a two-CD version of the album with bonus tracks and a live disc. Essence (2001) — the quick follow-up to Car Wheels — found her letting the music do more of the talking in songs that were more spacious, less straightforwardly narrative, and more sensual in tone. It’s an approach that she didn’t quite abandon on 2003’s World Without Tears (both Lost Highway), though that disc did mark a return to wordier songs with sharper hooks and earned her a Billboard Top 20 debut for the first time.
“When I made Car Wheels, I hadn’t made that many records,” she explains when I bring up her changing approach to songwriting. “I mean, Car Wheels was really only the third regular studio-type record for me. If you take all my albums and put them in a row and kind of look at them, you can see a natural progression that occurs from one record to the next. And Car Wheels was a big turning point. That was the record that apparently defined me for a lot of people. Everybody’s been comparing everything I’ve done to that record. So Essence was the record on which I said, ‘I can’t be forever saddled with the responsibility of Car Wheels.’ When I look at Bob Dylan and his albums, I see a similar pattern there. He was defined by albums like Blonde on Blonde, and I think he went through a little clumsy period where he tried not to be the Bob Dylan everyone was expecting him to be.”
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