Lucinda Williams’ heartfelt songs offer bits of tough love and graceful sorrow. As is the case with her most emotive and expressive releases over the last 20 years, her new studio album Blessed strikes a unique balance. From front to back, it’s a dynamic mix of blues, country, and folk-rock, and there are more than a few profound delights in the bunch.
Williams, a Louisiana native and three-time Grammy Award-winner, released Blessed in March via the Lost Highway label. When asked about the splendid instrumentation and the subtle vibrancy of the songs, she seems politely nonchalant.
“I write these songs acoustically, and they’re just little seeds and nuts,” Williams says. “When I take them to my band, I just see what happens. It never feels like a compromise, because my band and I are like family. We have a pretty democratic approach. If you have that chemistry established, it happens in the right way.”
Williams worked closely with studio wiz Don Was during the recording sessions. Her longtime rhythm section — bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton — clicked well with guitarist Val McCallum as they all welcomed several guests to the sessions, including Rami Jaffe (Wallflowers, Foo Fighters), veteran songwriter/vocalist Matthew Sweet, West Coast studio legend Greg Leisz, and Elvis Costello. The current touring ensemble features Sutton, Norton, and newly added lead guitarist Blake Mills.
“Rami was kind of the multi-instrumentalist on the basic tracks,” says Williams. “Greg added his usual beautiful array of stuff. And then we had Matthew come in and sing a few harmonies. Elvis played guitar on a tune called ‘Seeing Black.’ Having Don Was there in the studio was great. He knows what he’s doing, he listens, and he’s laid-back and honest.”
Fans can catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Williams initially put the new songs together on deluxe editions of Blessed, which include a bonus collection titled The Kitchen Tapes. They’re simply the original, straight-to-tape demos Williams recorded at her own kitchen table, where she does much of her writing.
“I don’t know how to write [sheet] music or anything,” Williams chuckles. “When I write a song, I play it on a small recorder and share it from there. That’s what I usually do at the kitchen table. My husband Tom would take it and transfer it to a CD, and then we’d listen back on a stereo. This was the first time I had access to a recorder like that. I was doing all the new songs that way. The band and friends would come over and listen, and it was really a lot of fun. Some of those sounded so cool, we decided to put them out, too.”
Even on the edgy, loud, upbeat numbers, there’s never too much going on within the songs. Nothing’s jumbled or distracted.
“I love the sound of this album. I feel like, with the making of each album, that I’m always getting closer to the sound I want,” Williams says. “We didn’t use many instruments this time around.”
The spare instrumentation allowed Williams to explore her full range, from high-volume wails to whispery, subtle, low-toned moments.
“I wasn’t really going in with any kind of goal, necessarily,” Williams admits. “That’s generally the way I approach writing and recording songs. I just let whatever comes out at that particular time come out. I take the songs in and keep an organic approach to the process. Unless it’s something specific, like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and do a blues album,’ it’s pretty much a song-by-song thing. Sometimes, a rock tune takes a turn when things start happening in the studio.”
There’s also a complex lushness across the album. It’s subtle but very effective. On some of the slow-rolling and spacious ballads, like “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin'” or the slightly sugary “Sweet Love” and “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” Williams touches on a few sad notions — misunderstanding, disillusionment, missing a loved one, hoping to be loved. “Soldier’s Song” tells a tragic story of a soldier overseas and his wife and child back home. Rockers like the growly lead-off track “Buttercup” and the bluesy “Convince Me” kick with spirit and zeal.
Williams manages to create an underlying optimism to counter the melancholy. The songs flow from style to style, but a medium mood is comfortably consistent.
“I guess there’s a subliminal thing that goes on when I’m writing a lot of songs at the same time,” Williams says. “There is going to be a tendency for a thread to run through things. There’s a template that I’m kind of writing behind, I guess.
“I’m never too concerned about how it gets down or who gets credit,” she adds “I just want to get it done well. At the end of the day, it’s all about making a great album.”