Thursday, February 16, 2012

Changed the Locks / Lucinda Williams

Come on. From the very first mention of Hell Hath No Fury Week, you should've known Lucinda would be on the roster.

Unlike most of my favorite chick singers, Lucinda Williams isn't exactly someone I'd invite over to nosh Doritos and giggle over the Golden Globes telecast. She's more like the hard-bitten divorcee down the hall who bums cigarettes off you and asks you to lie to her biker boyfriend if he shows up unexpected. Still, if a man were doing you wrong, who would you ask for advice?  Not sympathy, mind you, but all-men-are-bastards advice?  You betcha.  

For all its world-weary slouch, this song isn't late Lucinda Williams; this tough-girl attitude is where she started out. From her third album, 1988's Lucinda Williams, this is her first track that got some airplay -- not much, granted, but some. In the 1980s, this gutsy hybrid of rock and country-blues wasn't necessarily mainstream taste. Even after Mary Chapin Carpenter's sweetened-up cover of "Passionate Kisses" won Lucinda some songwriting recognition, it would still be another 10 years (with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) before the world was really ready to listen to Lucinda Williams.

From that opening snarl of guitar, you know she's pissed off and ready to do battle. The drums smack relentlessly, the guitarwork is dirty and a little raunchy sounding. She's way beyond pretty tunes, too -- each "verse" is simply a dogged chant, describing one radical change she's making to scour this man out of her life for good. Her voice is gruff, sarcastic, edged with a bitter yelp. Changing the locks is obvious, and so is switching her phone number.  But the more she goes on -- she's bought a new car, a new wardrobe -- you start to wonder: What did he do to make her so furious?

Normally people change the locks when someone's trying to hurt or harass them.  But is this guy threatening her physically? If she didn't change the locks, she declares, he'd come in and -- whoa, lie down on her couch.  If he could phone her up, he'd "say those things to me / That make me fall down on my knees."  Following her on the street, he might "knock me off my feet" or "call my name out loud." It's hardly what I'd call abuse. The real story, in fact, is that he's trying to woo her back. Romantic, right? Like Ryan Gosling trying to win back Rachel McAdam in The Notebook.  Yet that romantic movie ending is exactly what she doesn't want.

By the time she gets to the last two changes, she's hitting surreal extremes -- "I changed the tracks underneath the train / So you can't find me again," then "I changed the name of this town / So you can't follow me down." So what is she so afraid of?  So "you can't touch me like before, and you can't make me want you more." It isn't him she's afraid of; it's herself, and the self-destructive passion she feels for him.

That's a great twist, a sure sign of smart songwriting. But stop thinking this guy is Ryan Gosling, or Channing Tatum, or even (think 1988) Rob Lowe. He may turn her knees to jelly, but I'm betting he's still bad news, and now she knows it. Quivers of passion animate her vocals -- listen to that trembling uplift at the end of every lne -- but there's also a ragged edge of scorn to her voice.    

And if she can't resist his powerful charm -- well, then, she'd better change the locks, or the town name, or whatever.   


V.Corso said...

Excellent post!

I'd never heard of Lucinda Williams before this morning, but I definitely get the song. Been there, done that.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Sweet. I actually thought Kasey Chambers wrote this on account of first hearing it from her on Austin City Limits

Kasey does a great cover but you can't beat the Lucinda W. band for fine guitars & sexy Texas girl accents.

But pity the bass player who's beset with sound problems here:

Holly A Hughes said...

I'm actually surprised this song isn't covered more often -- it's got such angsty kick to it!

Dave K. said...

One of my favorite albums of all time in any genre. A true masterpiece! It has also been out of print for most of the last 20 years.

Lucinda does have this vulnerable/ hard-bitten persona--the all too trusting biker chick who's finally had enough. But she is also highly literate--not in the highbrow sense, but you know what I mean.