In which the full moon causes the Author to
channel Creem-era Lester Bangs for no good reason . . .
Deep down within me words move in phrases
Frozen and still ‘til they decide
To melt and drip over the pages
Until that moment they live inside . . .
When my words are hiding between the lines
Then I’m afraid they won’t hear me call
What if they fail me without a sign
What if they hardly surface at all . . .
--Lucinda Williams, "Words "
I think I lost it
Let me know if you come across it
Let me know if I let it fall
Along a back road somewhere
--Lucinda Williams, "I Lost It "
I'm learning how to live
without you in my life
--Lucinda Williams, "Learning How To Live"
There's a handful of recording artists who never disappoint--well, almost never--and Lucinda Williams is long-time a member of that exclusive club. Since her self-titled third album, she's never let me down (the count starts there because I've never warmed to her first two releases; I like my blues shouters with more authenticity than she was able to muster in those early days). Even when the roots contingent of her fan base bitched about West, I appreciated what she was doing and admired how she pushed past the genre stances that had endeared her to fans. Given the polarizing affect of West, the country-rock regrouping of Little Honey, Williams latest release, is its least surprising attribute. In a way, it recalls World Without Tears--a similar retreat into the tried and true after the more experimental Essence. But where the homecoming of World Without Tears left Williams' considerable songwriting talents intact, she arrives at Little Honey without the baggage that has provided inspiration for her best work.
Reviews needn't be structured like murder mysteries, so let's cut to the chase: There's a fine EP buried in Little Honey. But unfortunately there's also that other 40 minutes of music. The songs neatly fall into four categories: Lucinda In Love, Lucinda Dispensing Advice To Other Pop Stars, Lucinda Classics Old and New, and, well, a Lucinda/Elvis Costello comedy routine. The problem is that most of the new material is the stuff of B-sides and bonus tracks. And trust me, it almost physically hurts to admit this . . .
The quality of the Lucinda In Love material suggests that Paul McCartney was right all those years ago--it's a world filled with love songs that are indisputably silly. And while I'm pleased Lucinda is personally happy these days, there's good reason why great art rarely (if ever) flows from Being Happy. Happy has few nuances, which is a polite way of saying Happy is one-dimensional, which is also another way of saying that Happy is conflict-free, which is yet another way of saying Happy lacks drama, which is bad news if you're trying to write four-minute lyrical narratives. No conflict, no narrative--and I have no patience with songs that don't evolve across their verses and recontextualized choruses.
The tracks where Lucinda Dispenses Pop-Star Advice are problematic in two ways: First, god bless her, she's not exactly the poster girl for smart music-business moves, and second, apart from silly love songs, is there anything more boring than the echo chamber of rock stardom? "Running On Empty," "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," "Bitter Fingers," "How Do You Sleep?"--we get it, already. Fame Has A Price, aka It Hasn't Been Easy. Yada-Yada. Blah-Blah-Blah. I'm never sure what to make of this kind of song. I understand the seduction of merely looking around one's palatial rooms for material, but how exactly are listeners supposed to react? If you take away the conceit of metered and rhymed autobiography, what's left? The inspiration of talented-lucky-multi-platinum-singer-songwriters-on-the-other-side-of-nervous-breakdowns-and/or-heroin-habits? Despite the graphic, salacious details, this kind of song is basically a Lifetime Network movie. The brilliance of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" is her undermining of this self-pitying genre--which is why Little Honey won't be displacing Back To Black at the top of my frequent-play stack.
"Jailhouse Tears," the Lucinda And Elvis Standup Routine, amuses on the first two or three listenings, after which the song begins to irritate in the manner of any novelty number (even if you appreciate the implicit Tammy-and-George joke). So no; there's also not a lot of depth in the collection's Celebrity Duet.
Ultimately, however, Little Honey is kept from being a complete disappointment by the remaining songs. They comprise a powerful, lurking EP anchored by the heartbreaking "If Wishes Were Horses." There's also the infectious, radio-ready "Real Love," the somber "Heaven Blues," and "Tears of Joy"--the one silly love song that transcends itself. (William's cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way To the Top" might also have been a contender for inclusion on the virtual extended player, but my view of it remains colored by its role as the third panel in the pop-star-pity triptych.)
Another plus is the paradoxical fact that Little Honey is a near-perfect set of recordings: The live-in-studio production is superlative, the band's playing is spectacular and William's vocals are among the best she's done. There's also haunting melodies and impressively austere black-and-white art direction. If only the lyrics consistently rose to the level of their performances, production and packaging.
My final difficulty with Little Honey is its numbing length. I suspect the reasoning was something like "A CD can hold 74 minutes of music and it's priced at $16.99 even if it doesn't contain that much material, so let's give them full value for the money." But here's the thing: Most classic, vinyl-age pop records weighed-in at somewhere between 34 to 42 minutes. And just as the three- to five-minute capacity of the 45 RPM record codified length expectations for singles (even in this digital age), 45 minutes seems "right" for a set of studio pop songs (even in this digital age). Anything longer draws us into the old "double-album" territory, thrusting the 65-minute Little Honey into the company of The White Album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Wall, and Gone To Earth--where, frankly, it doesn't stand a chance. A version of Little Honey with a less self-indulgent length would have eliminated the water-treading redundancy of "Little Rock Star," "Rarity" and "It's a Long Way To the Top:" At 45 minutes, chances are are good that only one of three would ended up in the collection. See it as Pop Darwinism eliminating the weak. (Similarly, the ratio of love songs would also have benefitted from a little time-predicated pruning.)
Despite all my problems with Williams' latest release, I suspect Little Honey will out-sell the more adventurous and experimental West. Which is a shame, since it will encourage Williams to write more silly love songs, more navel-gazing rock-star ballads and worst of all, more comedy numbers. And me, well, I'd rather have gone farther down the path that produced "Are You Alright?" and "Learning How To Live," instead of having to brace myself for Lu and El doing a twangy cover of "I Got You Babe" while winking broadly. To paraphrase another song from West, 'I don't want to wrap my head around that.'