She Broke Your Memory Last Night #1: Lucinda Williams

On March 23, 2016

by Susannah Young


First things first: the title for my column is a direct, medium-clever homage to the Reba McEntire classic “He Broke Your Memory Last Night” from her 1984 album Just A Little Lovewhose cover future civilizations will use as a reference point for 1980s graphic design in between battles for resources (this vision of the dystopian hell that surely awaits us has very unusual cares and concerns; please humor me).

My column is so named because this is not a column about new music. I am here to weigh in on country music—but more specifically, the country music your aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents listen(ed) to. I am here to turn over the earth on artists, albums and songs we’ve sat with for years: music that has already carved a space for itself in our culture and makes your eyes glaze over when you hear it because it’s entwined with your memories and now inseparable from its connection to your own experiences. Writing about music that has steeped in the dirty little puddles of our lives for years is, to me, endlessly more fascinating than reading a hastily dashed-off and filed review of a new album. Which is why in so many ways, I have always been totally unfit to be a music writer in the professional sense (and why my byline appears with the frequency of one of our solar system’s lazier comets): nothing irks me more than being asked to immediately form and articulate a nuanced opinion about something I find important. We need to live with things a while before they truly make sense to us.

The last two years have been disruptive ones for me: a time that honestly felt a lot like living through a country song, as I spent month after month stumbling through some tough life experiences that, while pretty mundane in the context of Potential Human Experiences, assumed epic proportions because they were happening to me. It started with the Last Crusade melting Nazi-dissolution of a long-distance relationship. Said relationship—one that had lasted nearly ten years—ended last year on Valentine’s Day, when he was in town visiting. This is all less traumatic than it sounds; we both knew it was coming from the day I didn’t move across the country with him, and we’d both been treating each other dismissively for months. It still didn’t feel like any less of an unmooring, though; like losing my foothold on my adult life, almost all of which I’d been spent in this relationship.

Very shortly thereafter, I started dating a man I’d met several weeks prior. Our early conversations held all the gravitas of a slow camera pan set to your college sex playlist and all the energy and promise of early spring’s pure pale light. From the outside, I know it looked like me grabbing for a branch jutting out from the side of a cliff as I free-fell through life, but that wasn’t the case at all. Meeting him felt like a turning point, the beginning of something important and significant that I couldn’t quite articulate at the time but grew—and continues to grow—into something strong and beautiful. As with all new love, it is the thing that brings the most joy and the most potential for pain into my life, what keeps me going and what keeps me up at night.

For two reasons, Lucinda Williams has been an important guide for me during this time: as with any new relationship, you listen to the music your new love loves with great interest and with greater frequency (get you a man or woman who loves Lucinda Williams), and because of the meditative quality of her lyrics. Williams is the uncontested champion of following a single moment down the rabbit hole, inhabiting it fully, pushing against all its edges, deriving significance from it but only insofar as it relates to the moment itself and the single person or incident occupying her mind. It’s why “Essence” is the hottest song in recorded history, and one that feels completely truthful to what it feels like to want anyone. It’s why “Changed The Locks” feels completely accurate to what it feels like to want to move on. Over the course of the two years when I made decision after decision that led me to choose the unknown instead of a situation that didn’t make me happy, but was at least familiar and comfortable, Williams’ ability to examine her life one moment at a time, parsing out the meaning and the multitudes a single moment or a single feeling can contain didn’t merely seem appealing to me—it felt like something of an emotional survival strategy. Which is the role it’s always seemed to play for Williams herself, too.

Writing her way through multiple relationships with addicts (and one with a man who abused her), using songwriting to mine the vein of mental illness running through her family history—on every song, and through every painful situation she explores, Williams reaches a place that feels like absolute truth. In a 2012 interview with Believer, she credits her willingness “to dig way deep down in [myself], and go and look at those demons and monsters and stuff that happened…where the wealth of material is” for her ability to reach that point of truth that feels like a breakthrough and mesmerizes listeners, but I think equal credit goes to the way she chooses to wrestle her demons to the ground. I’ve spent my whole life learning the hardest lesson an anxious person can learn, which is that sometimes you can’t attain any kind of clarity about what’s currently going on in your life and make a choice about how to move forward if you’re focused too intently on examining the past for clues and trying to predict all possible outcomes for any decision you make. Focus only on what’s in front of you, a path emerges.

That laser focus on the present is why even people who don’t read find poetry powerful—and it’s the genius of Lucinda Williams’ songwriting. A description of an imaginary future with a hot guy isn’t compelling; a description of you secretly watching him buy tomatoes in a store is. A florid letter describing everything you love about a person is overwhelming and is more about you than the object of your affection, anyway; hearing someone sing “I just wanted to see you so bad” over and over again is the gooey center of the heart of anyone who’s ever been in love.

Lucinda Williams’ songwriting is, unsurprisingly, very similar to her dad Miller Williams’ poetry—and in one of his more famous poems, “Of History and Hope,” there’s a line that’s been stuck to the inside of my skull since I first read it way back in college: “But where are we going to be, and why, and who?” It is a perfect expression of every important question we face in our lives, of everything you must ask yourself as a person who lives and walks the earth. And in the simplest possible ways, Williams answers all those questions in every song she writes. She sees the entire life of a single moment, and understands how a single moment can contain an entire life.

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