From its cover in, Lucinda Williams' Blessed stands out. It title is readily visible in color photographs of anonymous citizens holding handmade signs, yet her name appears nowhere but the spine. The songs on Blessed are equally jarring: they offer sophisticated changes in her lyric oeuvre, extending their reach beyond first-person narratives of unrequited love and loss. She adorns these new tomes with roots rock and blues melodies dynamically illustrated by Don Was' sure-handed production (with assistance from Eric Liljestrand and husband Tom Overby. Her voice is front and center, but Was pushes an edgy, tight backing band -- fueled by Greg Leisz's and Val McAllum's guitars and Rami Jaffee's B-3 -- to frame it in greasy, easy grooves. Some guests who appeared on 2008's Little Honey -- notably Matthew Sweet and Elvis Costello -- return here. Set opener "Buttercup" is a rollicking kiss-off to a former boyfriend in which Williams simply lays out the truth as she sees it amid a strident rock & roll cadence. The guitars swell and fade while the B-3 swirls around her voice and the low-end drums hammer her vocal accents home. On the overdriven "Seeing Black," written for the late Vic Chesnutt, Williams, buoyed by an uncharacteristically scorching guitar break from Costello, offers no judgment; she simply questions his spirit as she struggles to accept the loss. Acceptance is a key theme on Blessed; it's voiced in the languid country rock of "I Don't Know How You're Living," with its pledge of unconditional love and support, and in the rumbling, explosive "Awakening." (An extension of "Atonement" from World Without Tears). But there's a militancy that's insisted upon here: it testifies to the willingness and resilience of the human heart. "Soldier's Song," written from a serviceman's point of view in a war zone, juxtaposes home and the new place he finds himself standing. In the late-night blues of "Born to Be Loved" and in the garagey title track, Williams employs repetitive, poetic lyrics that could be chanted as well as sung; in her honeyed Louisiana drawl, however, they become as sensual as a sunset in late summer. The two love songs near the record's end alternately express raw need and abundance. The unabashed humility in pleading on "Convince Me" is signified by a Southern R&B groove. "Kiss Like Your Kiss" closes the set two cuts later -- in waltz time -- by expressing gratitude for the abundant romantic love her protagonist experiences. It's painted by washes of lilting guitars, strings, and vibes. Blessed is Williams' most focused recording since World Without Tears; it stands with it and her 1988 self-titled Rough Trade as one of her finest recordings to date. Its shift in lyric focus is amplified by the care and detail in the album's production and crackling energy. By deliberately shifting to a harder-edged roots rock sonic palette, Blessed moves Williams music down the road from the dead-end Americana ghetto without compromising her qualities as a songwriter or performer.
by Thom Jurek