Kelly Willis offered just enough on her first three albums, released between 1989 and 1992 on MCA Records, to hint that she is a woman with a powerful and original musical perspective. She was signed by MCA Nashville head honcho Tony Brown, who allowed some of Willis' own ideas to emerge from the radio-friendly cliches that virtually every country artist uses to court mainstream acceptance.
"It was like an apprenticeship," Willis says in a phone interview. "I had a great time at MCA, and I learned a lot. This new record is all me, though."
What I Deserve, the new record, is the most stunning example of the nebulously defined genre of alternative country since Lucinda Williams' brilliant Car Wheels on a Gravel Road last year. Like Williams, Willis is an artist who clearly belongs in the country-music tradition but who doesn't fit in today's slick Nashville climate because the rock and pop influences on her music are far to the left of Billy Joel.
Willis is very much aware that Williams is paving the way for the groundswell of attention she's getting for What I Deserve. "I'm so glad to see Lucinda having the success she deserves," Willis says. "I love her music, and it's great to see her win all these awards. And if I can follow along in her footsteps, so much the better."
Williams writes songs that feel intensely personal, filling them with intimate, concrete details. Willis goes for a more abstract emotional pull, dropping in a few simple images and key phrases to achieve her effect. Willis also writes far less than Williams, and when she does, she frequently uses collaborators. Both women, though, rely heavily on their Oklahoma/Texas drawls' taking over their phrasing, and both are persistently creative singers. If Willis has a better sense of pitch, Williams may have a slightly greater ability to imply experience.
One other interesting point of comparison is the fact that Willis and Williams each let seven years go by without releasing a new album -- in both cases, the result of record-company problems and recording-process complications. Willis recorded What I Deserve on the cheap with the aid of a talented producer/engineer named Dave McNair.
You could assemble a pretty fair record collection from the oft-overlooked works of the musicians on this album. Willis uses Chuck Prophet (once of Green on Red and a respected solo artist for many years), Mark Spencer (who used to be in the Blood Oranges), Michael Been (of the Call), Jon Dee Graham (who worked with the True Believers) and Lloyd Maines (who's played with the likes of Wilco and Richard Buckner).
The musically inventive arrangements are tight and stick closely to Willis' vocals; the whole point of this album is the songs themselves. Most of the characters in these songs stand on the cusp of the past and the future, in between memory and happiness. They recognize the error of their ways and attempt to change but doubt their ability to do so. The present exists to distract from these thoughts. As Willis' husband, Bruce Robison, puts it in "Not Forgotten You," there are "times I even forget to be blue."
Love is the great problem of What I Deserve, the ostensible answer to the question posed by the title of the album. But in that track, co-written by Willis with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Golden Smog, doubt overtakes the self-help bucking-up of the chorus. "And my blood doesn't pour/There's nothing to bleed for/I don't believe anymore." Willis sings this song as an argument with herself, and she leaps powerfully on such phrases while letting in just enough uncertainty on the oft-repeated "what I deserve" to let us know she's not quite convinced.
"I couldn't fill the album with my songs," Willis explains. "I haven't written enough that I think are good enough yet, so I picked a lot of songs I've liked to sing, some that I've done for a long time, and a couple by my husband. I could sing a whole album of his songs. The others are just really good songs." Yes, they are, but they all fit the theme of uncertainty laid out in Willis' originals, and in Robison's, for that matter. "Wrapped," a snappy, bouncy Robison number, has a chorus sung in gospel-inspired three-part harmony: "Thought I was doing fine/About to get you off my mind/I see your face and then I'm wrapped/Around your pretty little finger again." This is not a love song; it's a "trapped" song. In the world of this album, people cannot do what they want, only what forces outside them dictate.
That makes Paul Kelly's "Cradle of Love" stand out, situated in the middle of the record -- right after "Wrapped," in fact. This is a pure statement of caring, a lovely melody expressing a lovely sentiment and the only example on the album of pleasure not contorted by pain or receding memory. The only other song that comes close, Paul Westerberg's brilliant "They're Blind," never lets us forget the possibility that the singer herself could be overlooking problems that she claims the rest of the world is using to blind themselves to her lover's good side.
The album ends with "Not Long for This World," written by Willis and John Leventhal (who works frequently with Shawn Colvin). This delicate, wistful ballad is a chilling farewell, describing a couple in a state of knowing their lives together are over but not quite being able to say it. Willis inhabits this song, as she does all the others. She mixes levels of pain with nostalgia and forgiveness with sorrow.
Kelly Willis has become a great singer. She mixes a rapidly developing talent for songwriting with a strong ear for the work of other writers that can complement her own. If What I Deserve is not a serious contender among the best albums of this year, it means we're about to be hit by an onslaught of brilliant music.
Willis performs at the Side Door on Tuesday, March 30. The club plans to bring in more chairs, cutting capacity a bit with the intention of creating a more intimate environment. If her live act is as good as the record, this show should not be missed.