Thursday, June 04, 2009

I Asked For Water (S/he Gave Me Gasoline)

I've noticed more and more formerly out-of-print music has been made officially available for download, even without a reissue on CD or LP. This is a great thing, and something that I have advocated since starting this blog. But it does present a certain dilemma for me in so far as there is increasingly less interesting out-of-print music for me to write about.

But every once in a while, I am shocked to discover a really great album that is unavailable in any format and fetching high prices on the used market. Such is the case with Lucinda Williams' eponymous 1988 album.

It took Lucinda Williams eight long years to follow up her first album of original material, 1980's Happy Woman Blues. Perfection takes time. Williams had grown enormously as a songwriter, singer and performer during the interval between albums. Unfortunately, it would take another ten years for the music buying public to figure out what those of us lucky enough to hear this album (released on Rough Trade a couple of years before it went bankrupt) already knew: Lucinda Williams is a genius.

"Changed the Locks" was released as a single, and is one of the stand-out tracks on an album full of stand-out tracks. The lyrics are at once harrowing yet ambiguous. It's clear that Lucinda's protagonist (or is it just her?) is on the run from a relationship gone very wrong. She's hiding from something so powerful and all-consuming that she's gone so far as to erase her identity and move heaven and earth in order to start over. She never fully articulates why, although she perhaps drops a hint with the line "so you can't knock me off my feet." Does she mean that figuratively, or literally? Or both?

One thing is clear: whoever or whatever she is hiding from in this song has scared the hell out of her, and hearing her sing about it, it scares the hell out me too. Lucinda's deliberate pacing and careful delivery turns a song that in lesser hands could have been the audio equivalent of a Lifetime movie staring Valerie Bertinelli into a masterpiece.

Tom Petty covered "Changed the Locks" on the She's The One Soundtrack. He does a fine job, but this is a case where the change of gender really damages the song on some fundamental level. Having a man sing the song reduces the ambiguous tension at the core of its power. And before anyone objects that "men get trapped in abusive relationships too" (yeah, I know I saw that episode of Montel), cut me a break. I just can't buy this as a guy's song.

"Crescent City" is a beautiful love letter to New Orleans, and just another damn fine song. But every song on the album is a classic.

In 1988 Lucinda Williams sounded fresh and ahead of its time (or perhaps refreshingly behind the times). The passing years have done nothing to diminish that impression; it sounds just as fresh and vibrant today, even after a flood of mediocre Depression/Whatever releases have created a codified market for this kind of music.

**UPDATE: According to posts on, it appears there is a long-delayed deluxe edition of this album in the works, possibly due in September.


jonder said...

It is indeed a great album, full of classic songs. I always thought Lucinda's original version of "Passionate Kisses" was better than the cover version that Mary Chapin Carpenter charted with.

Pete Bilderback said...

Agreed. Much better.