Few songwriters balance darkness and light with as much wonder as Lucinda Williams.
On her new album, Blessed, she consistently places both worlds side by side, as if sizing up the virtues — or, perhaps, inevitabilities — of each. By the time the hourlong album ends, the listener is not entirely sure which land she favors. But one thing is clear: One world leads directly to the other.
The album-opening Buttercup, for example, is the sort of ramshackle kiss-off song that only Williams could bring to jagged, boozy life. Although not as vitriolic as, say, Joy (from 1998's landmark album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), the song's sense of bad love is pervasive. But what follows is something lighter and more cautiously promising. One would be hard-pressed to classify the country dirge I Don't Know How You're Livin' as hopeful. There is restlessness and despondency reflected in the sleepy vocal drawl that has become Williams' signature. Still, compared to caustic finality of Buttercup, it's a wary step into the light.
More to the point is the emotive coupling of Copenhagen with Born to Be Loved. The former is a eulogy with a sense of loss, compounded by emotive surroundings that as are as foreign as the land the story is set in. But Born to be Loved comes loaded with light. It's a subtle but churchy affirmation.
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And so Blessed goes. It sets its course down dark, open roads but manages to briefly find its way home with strides that emphasize the spiritual. The music reaches a zenith with Ugly Truth, a whispery country retreat to "the quiet dark of your memories." The reversal — the musical antidote, if you will — is offered on Convince Me, a tune that erupts out of the shadows with gospel-esque hope.
The only curve ball comes at the end, when Blessed follows Convince Me with two more affirmations — a torchy, chant-like glimpse of renewal called Awakening ("I will lick my wounds; I will kiss the sky") and the epic romantic meditation Kiss Like Your Kiss, a mini-song cycle that assuredly waltzes through the seasons.
There are a few guest shots on Blessed. The most notable comes with the buzz-saw guitar breaks of Elvis Costello that make up the coda for Seeing Black, an electric questioning of a suicide that roughs up the edges of 1993's similarly themed Sweet Old World.
Those eager to involve themselves more directly with Williams' juggling act of shadow and light should spring for Blessed's "deluxe edition," which contains a bonus disc dubbed The Kitchen Tapes. It strips each of the album's 12 songs down into ragged acoustic blueprints. There, Blessed's sentiments scream quietly like exposed nerves.