Lucinda Williams has spent much of 2011 answering the same question. Is there a theme to her new album, Blessed? Time and again she says no. Then she adds that she doesn't often think in terms of themes.
Her simple, blunt response is quintessential Williams. Live, she's sparse on exuberant chit-chat between songs. Her persona is as down-tempo as a delicate ballad.
I've loved the music of Lucinda Williams ever since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road became the gorgeous folk-rock CD I didn't want to stop playing in 1998. But I've always pondered the curious difference between Williams' emotional songwriting and her reserved stage presence.
She released her 10th studio album on Feb. 1. Blessed packs as much emotional punch as Car Wheels and Essence. The recording's intensity peaks on "Seeing Black," a song that confronts suicide with a litany of urgent questions. "When did you make the decision to get off this ride," queries Williams. "Did you run out of places to go and hide?" The final minute of "Seeing Black" is a cascade of angry electric guitar that implodes into silence.
Williams turns up the voltage again on "Awakening." This six-minute song is an eerie tribute to spiritual transformation. The wailing guitars help make it an anthem to emotional endurance: "I will honor the mistaken. I will honor the truth. I will honor the forsaken. I will not mourn my youth."
At other moments, Blessed is serene and satisfied. The title track depicts the countless ways average people beat the odds stacked against them. "We were blessed by the girl selling roses who showed us how to live," sings Williams. "We were blessed by the neglected child who showed us how to forgive."
Then there's "I Don't Know How You're Livin'," a slow-motion ballad that blandly wallows in the remorse of a lost relationship. Williams returns to Madison to play the Capitol Theater on May 20. Here's hoping her performance will reflect the energy of "Seeing Black" more than the restraint of "I Don't Know How You're Livin'."