What has changed? It could be Williams' marriage to manager and co-producer Tom Overby. It could be the loss of two of her close colleagues in recent years. It could be that in her 30-year career, the healing power of time has helped her to say, "To hell with it." Whatever sparked the transformation, it's clear in Blessed that Williams has been inspired to look to the pain of others as her new muse.
A concern and empathy for her friends powers much of the new album. The woe-tinged soulfulness in "I Don't Know How You're Livin'" expresses a deep worry for a friend who is devoid of emotion, a shell of a person. The loss of friend and long-time manager Frank Callari in 2007 inspired "Copenhagen," in which Williams sadly recalls the moment she learns of her colleague's passing. With an eerie clarity, she captures the vulnerability of the moment when learning of the loss of a friend: "I'm 57 but I could be 7 years old ‘cause I will never be able to comprehend the expansiveness of what I've just learned." Singer-songwriter friend Vic Chesnutt, who passed away in 2009, is the subject of Williams' exploration in "Seeing Black," where grief-stricken and angry, she quizzes her friend's decision to take his own life.
For those that miss the old take-that Lucinda Williams, she still rocks the contemptuous moxy that powered her Happy Woman Blues years in tracks like "Buttercup." While her personal love life is less of a theme, Williams makes room in the album for the points she wants to drive home, as in her personal protest with "Soldier's Song."
Blessed is not an overly-produced album, which makes it stronger. With a notable Butch Norton on drums, David Sutton on bass and Elvis Costello picking up guitar for three of the tracks, the bluesy ensemble is an impressive complement to Williams' smokey vocals without overwhelming her ability to tell her story.
While Williams' is trying to turn her eyes outward to the pains of the world, we see her own sorrows and vulnerabilities pour through. Those experiences that she can only try to imagine or empathize with lack the poignancy and authenticity that should give the music life. There is a simplicity in the basic rhyming of stanzas and repetition in lyrics that are evident in the title track "Blessed," "Born To Be Loved," and "Convince Me," during which we hear the phrase "Please, please, please convince me" no less than 15 times.
This new direction of taking a look at the world is a big step for Lucinda Williams, who historically has written of her own troubles with love in life. If she's headed in a new direction, her ardent fans will no doubt follow, but she will need to make sure she blazes a trail worth following her down.