It's long been said that the blues -- in all its forms -- is one of the most potent means to transform pain into beauty. Lucinda Williams has known that since she began devouring music as a youngster growing up in Louisiana, and she's been finding new ways to perform that alchemical reaction ever since.
With West, a disc that may well be Williams' most personal work to date, the singer-songwriter channels both her emotion and restive creative energy into a startling set of songs that touch on both darkness and redemption. At turns strikingly spare and compellingly muscular, the album's 13 cuts attest to her willingness to stretch as a musician -- and to put herself on the line as a chronicler of life.
There's no disputing the sense of struggle that imbues songs like "Fancy Funeral" -- a ballad with a gentle lilt that can't mask the disillusionment of a narrator trying to make a case for the meaninglessness of such an affair. Nor can one miss the ache in "Mama You Sweet," a raw-but-right rumination on what remains after the loss of a loved one.
On the other hand, West is rife with songs that serve to enliven and affirm, albeit in decidedly non-Hallmark fashion. The fiery "Come On" -- a kiss-off tune in the mode of Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" -- uses a stinging guitar hook to grab the listener by the lapels, all the better for Williams to deliver a knockout blow with a flurry of acerbic, double-entendre lyrics. There's a similarly edgy vibe at play in "Wrap My Head Around That," which stalks stealthily for nine minutes of hypnotic rhythm -- goosed along by Bill Frisell's serpentine guitar -- that matches Williams' sharp wordplay at every turn.
The envelope-pushing sonics on those songs can be attributed to Williams' recent listening patterns -- an eclectic list that includes Thievery Corporation and M.I.A in addition to The Black Keys and White Stripes -- as well as the collaborative relationship she developed with the album's co-producer, Hal Willner.