Back in 1980, when she was just starting to find herself as a songwriter and singer, Williams chose to title her second album Happy Woman Blues; too bad, because that phrase perfectly describes her latest effort. Now trusting the sense of contentment brought on by a sustaining and sustainable long-term relationship, Williams has freed herself up to shift her focus outward, so that her acute sensitivity comes to bear on the plights of others, both those she holds dear and those whose personal tragedies she can only imagine—which is how and why this happy woman has the blues. Here on Blessed, she completes the transition, begun on 2009’s Little Honey, from picking at her own psychological scabs to resting a soothing hand on another’s fevered brow, as this gifted and mature writer pens a resonant batch of songs that get at every nuance of her empathy, to immensely powerful effect.
As if to draw a line in the sand, this canny artist begins the album with a dismissive kiss-off song in “Buttercup,” its midtempo momentum as aggressively yet casually paced as its apparent template, Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” saying, in effect, “Get out of my sight—I don’t have time for this shit.” This thematic palate cleanser gives way to the core of Williams’ present mindset as, on the following “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin’,” she dials back the tempo to the delicate, elegiac crawl that is Blessed’s rhythmic and emotional base line. Four decades ago, Carole King made a strikingly similar point in “You’ve Got a Friend”; here, in this writer’s cosmology, the culminating line is “I’ve always got your back,” and it’s every bit as credibly heartfelt.
As the song cycle introduces its diverse cast of characters, Williams mourns a pair of lost friends, manager Frank Callari in the exquisite “Copenhagen” and Vic Chestnutt in the torrential “Seeing Black”; releases a flood of compassion on “Born to Be Loved,” “Soldier’s Song” and the cornerstone title track, with its funky-elegant Memphis groove; and celebrates the redemptive relationship that has transformed her in the startlingly candid “Sweet Love” (“Who would have ever guessed / I would be where I am like this / with you, my dear”). The album comes to a close with the credo of “Awakening” (“I will honor the mistaken, I will honor the truth… I will honor the forsaken, I will not mourn my youth”) and a final expression of life-giving intimacy in “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” its passing-of-the-seasons motif deepening its sense of poignancy through its tacit acknowledgment that all things come to an end.
These are precious songs to Williams, as they will be to her listeners, and she’s chosen the ideal supporting cast to shepherd them home—pros’ pros who possess a sensitivity equal to their virtuosity. After Little Honey, she told me she never wanted to work with anyone but that LP’s co-producer/engineer, Eric Liljestrand, and on this project she doubles down, with Liljestrand manning the console while the renowned Don Was serves as producer, with the hallowed ground of Hollywood’s Capitol Studios as the setting for the sessions. Together, Was and Liljestrand create a close, natural-sounding aural space for Williams to inhabit, and she fills it with a set of vocal performances completely free of the tics and affectations that have marred some of her recordings in the previous decade. Her words and her voice have never seemed more directly connected than the do here.
Surrounding her voice is a studio band, anchored by drummer Butch Norton and bassist David Sutton, that doesn’t need to play loud to be powerful, although when they do crank it up, on “Seeing Black” and the payoff of “Convince Me,” they sound like a force of nature, led in both instances by the guitar fireworks of Elvis Costello, who accesses his inner Neil Young in a pair of breathtaking performances on which he continually tops himself. In a far subtler way, Matthew Sweet (another holdover from the last record) manages to perfectly shadow Williams’ squalling vocal through“Seeing Black” without ever calling attention to himself, hiding in plain sight, so to speak, as he also does on “Copenhagen” and “Buttercup.” But it’s string wizard Greg Leisz whose aching pedal steel backdrops most vividly embody the character and mood of these songs. Indeed, the movement of Leisz’s hands over the strings are as central to the record’s understated intensity as Williams’ singing.
If 1998’s Car Wheels on as Gravel Road stands as the high point of Williams’ self-involved period, Blessed just as masterfully traces the bursting heart and smoldering soul of her humanity. This is as deep and true as the song form gets.