Editorial: Lucinda Williams & Modern Times

Could anyone but Bob Dylan produce something like Modern Times and receive near-universal acclaim? Case-in-point: Lucinda WilliamsWest, released last week to very mixed reviews.

Lucinda Williams is often assumed to be the female Bob Dylan. On the surface, the comparison seems apt. For one, both Lucinda and Bob have rapidly deteriorating voices, presumably from years of smoking. Lucinda’s voice is about where Bob’s was on the Live 1975: Rolling Thunder Revue album–extremely gritty yet still viable–but listeners should not be surprised in 2020 when she croaks her way, Bob-style, through the lyrics.

Other, more serious similarities might include the following: Lucinda and Bob are both multi-Grammy winners, celebrated lyricists, edgy personalities, cowpokes, etc. The list could go on. Lucinda has even said that her song “American Dream” from 2003’s World Without Tears was an attempt to recreate an early Bob protest song.

For most artists labeled “new Bobs,” Lucinda included, the comparison is more trouble than it’s worth–especially since 1997, when Dylan seems to have achieved a status of basically invincible.

With Lucinda’s disappointing West, one gets the feeling that her career is following a rise and fall similar to Dylan’s–a mirror to his barely-redeeming string of albums between Desire and Time Out of Mind. (Note: exceptions during those years include the overlooked acoustic effort Good as I Been to You.) There are just a few worthy tracks per release on some of those late 70s and 80s albums, and during those years, Bob pretty much fell out of modern relevancy.

Right now, Lucinda Williams is stuck somewhere in the murk of Dylan’s late 70s and 80s period. Ultimately, the sound of West might not seem as dated as, say, that of Street-Legal, but her songs are just as repetitive and the lyrics are just as recycled-sounding as the majority of the overrated Oh Mercy (“Most of the Time” and “Long Black Coat” excluded).

What happened to the “female Dylan” between the flawless Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the decent Essence, the unbalanced-but-ultimately-redeeming World Without Tears, and now?

During this phase in his career, Dylan was just worn out. Maybe for Lucinda, as with Bob, we can expect a triumphant comeback in about 15 years. At least, because of her slow output (compared with Dylan’s relative prolificacy), listeners can look forward to fewer disappointments between now and then.

One problem is that nobody has really talked about Dylan’s latest, Modern Times. Sure, it’s been reviewed. Sure, it’s been ranked among 2006’s best. And sure, it’s the usual, predictable hero-worship for Bob.

While Lucinda’s latest, West, is boring, lyrically unoriginal, and repetitive, Modern Times is also boring, musically unoriginal, and repetitive (nevermind that Dylan desperately needs to re-enlist former bandmates Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell). Modern Times‘ only redeeming tracks are “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin'”, and naturally, Dylan gets extra points for those two tracks, as well as for his superficial-but-original lyrics, and because, frankly, we love him. When it comes to the overall quality of Modern Times, however, it just isn’t that much better than West.

The question is: was Modern Times one of 2006’s best albums, or did Dylan just win for being around? Compared to Love and Theft, one of his best albums- ever- Modern Times is little more than fluff.

At this point, it’s important for musicians to realize that Bob Dylan is not a universal touchstone for quality even if reviewers make it seem true. The fact is, because he’s so loved by the world–because of his undeniable classics and for what he represents today–few critics can objectively judge his work as well as they might, say, Lucinda Williams.

Dylan has done well for himself, but let’s not forget the stinkers (and some moderate stinkers hailed as great). And that’s the thing: reviewers have given Lucinda what for for West (like an intentionally insulting 3.2/10 from the online rag Pitchforkmedia.com), but Dylan, despite his marginally better Modern Times, just needs to ring Pavlov’s bell for near-universal acclaim (see Pitchfork’s ego-stroking and 8.3 rating).

If she’s reading the reviews, Lucinda must hate life right now–after the NYT and hipster thermometer Pitchfork panned the definitely uninspired West. Someone needs to reassure her, though: West is about as good as Modern Times–so in some ways she’s succeeded in writing a few songs like Dylan.

It’s just that both albums are sub-par for these two supposedly kindred spirits. Unfortunately one of the two is invincible to criticism. The other is Lucinda Williams.

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