In 2007, Lucinda Williams released West, which sounded like the work of an artist deep in the act of mourning some unfathomable loss. Though not one of her strongest efforts, it’s one of her most sustained, creating a dark mood and seeing it through to the end. Williams’ latest, Blessed, plays like a more varied (and better) sequel. Loss, both general and particular, dominates the album, but it’s balanced by a sense of reflection. These are songs from someone who’s seen what life can take, but also enough of what it gives in return to want to keep moving on.
“Buttercup” opens Blessed with a biting kiss-off to an irresponsible lover, but the disappeared, not the exiled, haunt the album. On “Soldier’s Song,” Williams sings from the perspective of a soldier fated never to return from war, piling one simple detail atop another to heartbreaking effect. “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’” reaches out to an absent friend, and the searing “Seeing Black” draws inspiration, but few conclusions, from the recent suicide of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. In 1992, the gentle, chiding title track to Williams’ Sweet Old World paid tribute to a friend who killed himself. The years between find her asking the same questions with the volume turned up.
Produced by Don Was, Blessed doesn’t sound fussed-over; it lets the songs, Williams’ voice, and bluesy guitar work—provided on some tracks by Elvis Costello—take the lead. Fans missing the tight songcraft of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and its predecessors won’t find much to latch onto after “Buttercup,” but there’s plenty of stellar material for those now used to the looser approach Williams has favored for the last decade, from the heartbreaking simplicity of “Sweet Love” to the sharp wisdom of “Ugly Truth,” which finds Williams singing how “from the cradle to the grave / you will always be a slave / to the quiet darkness of your memories,” and making that sound okay.