Review Summary: A Thousand Miles Between Us
The six years Williams spent on “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998) produced a knock-out record where every note, lyric, and vocal pitch felt alternately spontaneous and perfectly calculated. Yet it only took her three years to successfully embark in a new direction with striking “Essence”, and it wasn’t until 2003 when the first signs of weakness in her songwriting appeared. “World Without Tears”, despite some highlights like the wailing “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings”, collapsed in its second half into meandering bitterness. Nearly all of “West” (2007), tragically, bears resemblance to those lesser songs. Williams still possesses a strong enough presence to keep the album listenable at first glance – and the backup instrumental performances are mostly strong – but any deep analysis quickly reveals a ponderous record short on ideas. The tracks need stronger melodies, but the biggest and most surprising problems are lyrical.
At over an hour in length, “West” is a murky sea of dreary songs almost entirely lacking in variety and drained of fun. When Williams’ raw voice repeats the typically blunt line “I can’t find my joy anywhere” in “Everything Has Changed”, the point rings truer than she may have intended. That song, along with “Mama You Sweet” and “Learning How to Live”, is trite at best, while other tracks are simply terrible. On “What If”, Williams wonders what would happen “if dogs became kings and the Pope chewed gum” in a bizarre confession of worry and self-doubt. The nightmarish nine-minute “Wrap My Head Around That” recalls Lucinda’s baritone rap from “Joy” back in the days of “Car Wheels” – or, more specifically, her 8-minute rendition of that song on 2005’s “Live @ The Fillmore” – but the result is uninspired stream-of-consciousness eschewing a good melody and insightful lyrics for tiring desperation.
This tone – maintained throughout – is particularly inappropriate on the silly “Words”, which takes its title all too literally as Williams’ “words enjoy the feel of the paper better than mingling with your consonants” before slipping “in between your ‘if’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts’” (the bonus track version of “West” has an improved version with more playful feel). “Come On” – the only attempt at rock – falls flat on its face as Williams appears to let an egregiously obvious rhyme scheme drive her songwriting. As she relents “Dude I’m so over you/you don’t even have a clue/all you did was make me blue”, one can’t help but wonder if she’s suddenly going to decide to take a trip to the zoo. “Still I Long for Your Kiss” from “Car Wheels” boasted far more powerful cries of regret by knitting clever lyrics with intricate rhythms rather than relying entirely on blunt rhymes.
A few songs stand tall over the middling bulk of “West”, but only the title track fully escapes all of the album’s pitfalls. “Are You Alright” sounds like the sequel to “Lonely Girls” from “Essence”, setting an appropriate mood with a repeating chant. Though uninspired, the effect is intoxicating and the instrumental work memorable. “Rescue”, though at first barely distinguishable from the tracks around it, stands up to close scrutiny as a searing violin simmers underneath lyrics of haunting pessimism. “West” – by miles the best song – ends it all on a positive note. “Come out west and see the best that it could be” leads into striking metaphoric imagery: “I look off in the distance and blow a kiss your way/The thousand miles between us will disappear some day.” The line may as well apply to the emotional distance between Williams and the listener throughout the album – and the promise in the last track that it will pass.