After a pair of back-to-back releases in 1979 and 1980, Lucinda Williams only made three albums between 1988 and 1998, but she made each of them count. Her fifth, 1998's Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, sounded like a summation of everything she'd done before, mixing blues, folk, and country, then blowing it up to the size of a Springsteen anthem. Since then, the albums have come faster, and they haven't always benefited from the pace. There's a lot to recommend both the quiet, introspective Essence and the loud, bluesy World Without Tears, but neither boasted the consistency of Car Wheels or its immediate predecessors.
West tries both approaches, but the quiet numbers work best. Williams has a gift for building full-bodied characters out of understated instrumentation and a few lyrical details, a gift put to impressive use on songs like "Mama You Sweet." The song opens and closes with endearments ("I love you, mama, you sweet") but spends the rest of its time exploring the speaker's restlessness, and the unspoken divide between mother and daughter. The album keeps returning to the theme of lost connections. "Where Is My Love" ticks through a string of cities, searching for a man who isn't coming back, while "Words" lays out the comforts—and limitations—of using language as a tool.
Those songs were created with great craft and executed by an all-star band that includes Bill Frisell and Jim Keltner. But when the group tries to explore the other, louder side of its sound, West sounds slapped-together. Live, Williams will probably make "Come On" scorch, but here, its taunts—"you never even made me come on!"—just sound juvenile. But skip around the attempts to make a big, angry noise and you'll find as pleasing a piece of folk-pop as you'll likely hear this year. It's only a disappointment to those who remember when skipping wasn't necessary.