I loved Lucinda Williams' 2007 album West, but I was in the distinct minority among journalists who reviewed the album. My sense is this collective response, which featured some of the most vitriolic critiques leveled at Williams in her entire career, had much to do with the fact that the lush, ultra-mellow album represented the furthest imaginable pole from Williams' early work. And if there's one thing people don't like, it's when a good thing changes, even if those changes aren't necessarily bad.
Now, a decade after the critical zenith of her career (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), Williams brings us Little Honey, due out October 14 on Lost Highway. The album is, by her own admission, a sharp swerve back to Car Wheels' rockier, rangier terrain. Williams traditionalists will likely be thrilled; what the album proves is that while you can take the girl out of the South (Williams lives in California now), you can't take the South out of the girl. I think all her naysayers needed was a little reminder of this, and, well, now they've got it.
Here's the catch, though: the tracks on Little Honey essentially amount to leftovers from other albums, most notably West. I first heard "Jailhouse Tears," "Knowing," and "Tears of Joy," for three, at a show Williams played in Chattanooga at least two years before West's release. These are strong tracks -- stronger, to be sure, than many of West's -- but they didn't fit tonally with that album. And now with the release of Little Honey, whose standouts include the epic "Little Rock Star" and the lovely "If Wishes Were Horses," we know there was method to Williams' supposed madness.
Part of what I hope comes from the assessment of Little Honey is a critical revisitation of West. Like Essence, Williams' Car Wheels follow-up that was met with mixed reviews, West seems to be aging well, at least on my stereo. If West and Little Honey were released as a long-awaited double disc, which they easily could have been (not since the beginning of her career three decades ago has the famously meticulous Williams released studio albums in back-to-back years), my sense is that critics would be hailing it as the high point of her career -- higher, possibly, than Car Wheels.