A marked rebound from 2006’s deadly dull West and 2008’s uneven Little Honey, Blessed finds Lucinda Williams remembering that she’s supposed to be one of America’s greatest songwriters. Since she started churning out albums every couple of years with 2001’s Essence, Williams hasn’t always proven as sharp or consistent in her writing. To that end, Blessed is another mixed bag, but its strongest cuts are easily the best that she’s recorded since the landmark Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and that’s cause for some celebration.
Blessed doesn’t get off to a great start. Williams can write a snide, bitter kiss-off song better than just about anyone, but “Buttercup” falls well short of her lofty standards. The dirty blues guitar and Hammond B3 give the song an appropriately gritty backdrop, but its refrain is simply lazy and ineffective. Williams understands how to make minimalism work, but “Now you want somebody to be your buttercup/Good luck finding your buttercup” just doesn’t work as a hook and isn’t even a good line on its own. “Sweet Love” and “To Be Loved” both benefit from the Southern soul vibe that producer Don Was creates, but they’re both simply too repetitive in their structures and lyrical conceits. “The Awakening” fares even worse, with Williams repeating the phrase “In the awakening” in a dreary monotone every few bars, interspersed with heavy-handed lines like “I will have no bosses/I will not bow my head” that never build to a greater thematic statement.
Fortunately, those kinds of dire, self-serious songs and lapses in quality control are the exceptions on Blessed, and the album includes some of Williams’s most dense, challenging folk poetry. “Seeing Black” includes some blistering electric guitar work from Elvis Costello, giving a palpable rage to Williams’s open letter to a friend who committed suicide. “How did you come up with the date and time?” she asks. “You didn’t tell me you had changed your mind.” It’s a real gut check of a song, and a lesser songwriter would have made its color symbolism into something didactic, instead of the thoughtful progression from life to death that Williams observes here. “Copenhagen” is similarly heavy, as Williams reflects on her late manager. She sighs with a lifetime’s worth of experience and maturity when she sings, “I’m 57, but I could be seven years old/‘Cause I will never be able to/Comprehend the expansiveness of what I’ve just learned.”
The album isn’t all death and despair. The soulful groove on the pleading “Convince Me” makes tremendous use of Williams’s trademark repetition, bringing the weaknesses of a song like “The Awakening” into sharp relief, while the title track searches for silver linings among the socially disenfranchised and underprivileged. “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” which originally appeared on the True Blood soundtrack, is one of Williams’s deepest, most sensitive vocal performances, as she marvels at the perfection of her lover’s kisses. Blessed isn’t a “happy” record in any conventional sense, but it’s informed by deeply felt hope and contentment. That may make the album something of a tonal shift for Williams, but the best moments here truly rival the peaks of her already legendary career.