Sunday, September 10, 2017

Incompetent/Can't: Can't Let Go

Purchase: Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go", from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Print: "Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road", from Church of Type, by artist Kevin Bradley, " of America's most prolific letterpress printmakers." According to his amazing website, "The Church of Type is a full-custom art and design studio working exclusively in the sweet science of authentic handset letterpress."  

I've got my credit card in hand as I write this--really amazing stuff.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has a strange distinction of being the book that all English majors can talk about while not having actually read it. The book is a titan of American Literature, one of the springs from which all that followed it had to flow. Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a bit like Moby Dick—everyone’s heard of it, but few have actually read (or in this case, listened to) it. In the world of Alternative-Country music, Car Wheels is cited as a seminal influence by more singer/songwriters than I can name here and cracked the top 300 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s bonafides are bonafide; it’s accolades too many to count. Yet, for the casual listener, I wonder how many have given it more than a casual listen?

I’ve listened to the album many times, and chose to write about it for this post not because I am one of it’s true believing praise singers, but because I’ve never quite gotten my head around it.

It’s good, do get me wrong. What am I saying? It’s great. Amazing. 

I’ve just never been able to figure it out: in plain terms, I’m not sure what it is supposed to be. Every track is different, and while it won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Folk Album, it is far from just a folk album. As a collection of songs, it defies definition—it has traces of folk, to be sure, but it dives into country, rock, blues—a sonic landscape as varied and wide-ranging as the subject matter of Williams’ poignant and elegiac prose-poem lyrics. Like many great albums, it marries genres. And like a great marriage, the music comes across as effortless, even when painful and challenging. 

And that’s a good word to describe Car Wheels: a challenge. What to make of such a vast and wide-ranging collection? The songs range from cracking, bar room boogie, to traditional, gospel-tinged Nashville of country music’s heritage days. The moods are myriad, as are the producers (Rick Rubin, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band), and the players are a hall of fame guest list (Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, Emmylou Harris). The album took six years to record, and Williams re-recorded it twice from scratch—like any piece of literature worth the paper it’s printed on, good work takes time, and not editing, but whole sale revision.  And the reviews are stellar, on a historical level. Back at its 1998 release, and up until today, as it is such touchstone of an album, that Car Wheels still gets press. Much like how we started with a comparison to literature, Car Wheels garners the same sort of praise and asks for the same kind of critical analysis as a great piece of literature. Any collection of songs that covers as much ground musically, can delve as deeply into imagistic setting and character, deserves the copy. 

The original review in Rolling Stone sang the praises of the album in verbiage befitting a literary masterpiece. Writer Robert Christgau waxes poetic about Car Wheels, but he sums up the thematic substance, the heart of the album, best near the end of the review, when he writes: “Whether it's the interrupted childhood memories of the title track, the imagistic shifts …Williams' cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness — about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past — are always engaging…And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best — although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her — but that they're very much with us.”

I suppose in the end, I’ve not been very clear about what ‘troubles’ me about Car Wheels. It’s not if I’m dubious on whether the album is good or not—I used the very lackluster adjective ‘great’ earlier to describe my feelings. That’s a poor, pale word for such an eclectic collection of aural story-telling. This is a collection of songs that, again like a great book, keeps me wondering and guessing at meaning and theme. What was Williams trying to accomplish with Car Wheels, aside from collecting memories, stories, emotions. And, as Christgau writes, Williams was working at capturing a mood of the past, an elusive zeitgeist of old times, grey ghosts on country roads, the voices of the greats rising up from the fog to stake a claim in the present tense that they so clearly can lay ownership upon. She captures moods here, many of them, yet none are so prevalent as to direct the record toward one central feeling. The motifs, the tangible, palpable imagery—all of it combines to tell a novel’s worth of story that never really ends. And that is where the album finally differentiates from the novel: there is no end, not to a song. It might fade out, but a collection as strong as Car Wheels never, ever stops telling its story.

Check out this bluesy snarl of a track, a little back porch stomp, called “Can’t Let Go”, which is about exactly like what it sounds. Williams might be tongue in cheek on the metaphors on this track, but this broken hearted blues lament on not being able to shake even the worst kind of love is raw and gets its hooks into you. Kind of like the man that the character of this song can’t let go of. A fitting track to introduce an album that, much like the song, gets a hook and won’t let go.