Lucinda Williams is like the Lotte Lenya of country music. She’ll rasp along melodically enough, and then suddenly snatch a note out of thin air, massage it with vibrato, and the song becomes heartbreaking despite its head-nodding beat. Her husky contralto wraps around her songs about Southern life, heartbreak and, less frequently, optimism as if they were her internal monologues, somehow making them as appealing at 3 a.m. as they are on a road trip.
Over the weekend, Williams came to New York for two sold-out shows at Webster Hall, where her voice and her rip-roaring band were on full display. There aren’t any tricks employed in the recording studio; she really does sound that good. The only quibble with her performance, which ranged from “Changed the Locks” from her breakout album, Lucinda Williams, to songs from her most recent release, Blessed, is that she sounds exactly the same on every song as she does on her LPs. Rhythms aren’t changed up, she doesn’t invest her performance with more passion—the songs are just louder (a great thing with musicians like hers) and the emotion more immediate.
Where Williams fumbled, as she often does, is in her sudden displays of earnestness. Songs like “Born to Be Loved” and “World Without Tears” find her taking on themes of abandonment and reassurance, but Williams, who has such a knack for crawling inside heartbreak, can’t alchemize optimism and sincerity the same way. Those songs weren’t too much in evidence, though, as she let loose on crowd-swayers like “Out of Touch” (which sounded better than on Essence) and toe-tapping, head-bangin’ stand-out new song “Seeing Black” (“When did you start seeing white/ Help me baby, what was it like/ Was it when you received the last rites?”) In a world of carbon copy pop stars and recycled hooks, a world without Lucinda Williams and her sui generis talent is an unimaginable one.
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