Music reviews: Kanye West, Lucinda Williams, Wynonna Judd

The AP

Kanye West :: ‘The Life of Pablo’

Some two decades ago, after achieving wealth and singular pop chart success, the eccentric, sometimes-rude Midwestern musical genius Prince found himself searching for a fresh challenge. He re-named himself with an unpronounceable symbol, spent lavishly on unreleased creative projects, then sang about sex, betrayal and a higher purpose on 1995’s The Gold Experience.

Flash-forward to Kanye West, another eccentric, rude, Midwestern talent. His response: The Life of Pablo.

West’s seventh solo album isn’t as instantly catchy or cohesive as his earlier work. But it’s consistently interesting and full of feeling, with off-kilter hip-hop soundscapes and lyrics that pivot suddenly from generous spirituality to crass insults.

This 18-track collection feels personal and warm, compared to the aggressively glitchy Yeezus. West repeatedly references his family and reveals wryly humorous self-awareness often missing in Twitter rants and TV appearances. On “Feedback,” he acknowledges, “I’ve been out of my mind a long time,” and later on raps “I miss the old Kanye … I hate the new Kanye.”

“Ultralight Beam” sets a high bar that the rest of the album doesn’t quite reach. Compared to West’s 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there’s too much lyrical sloppiness on Pablo, possibly stemming from a falling-out with longtime ghostwriter Rhymefest. Still, Pablo finds our most provocative modern hip-hop star evolving yet again, flexing his nerdy crate-digging bona fides alongside tabloid-ready call-outs and relentless ambition. (Ryan Pearson/AP)

Lucinda Williams :: ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’

Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams digs deeper into raw, mystical electric blues on her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20. Focused on faith, death, the afterlife and rural Southern settings, Highway 20 sounds like a William Faulkner novel put to music.

It’s not a fun listen; not something you’ll sing along to or put on at a party. But it has a haunting gravitas that conjures spirits and rattles bones. The album alternates between dirges (“Death Came”) and gnarled mid-tempo tunes (“Dust”), with forays into hymns (“Doors of Heaven”), voodoo rhythms (“If My Love Could Kill’’) and woozy waltzes (“If There’s a Heaven’’). Those willing to lose themselves in its severe tone and the stark imagery will find The Ghosts of Highway 20 casts a potent spell. (Michael McCall/AP)

Wynonna Judd :: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

Wynonna Judd has repeatedly reinvented herself since rising to country music stardom in her teens. She does it again on Wynonna & The Big Noise, her first collection of original material since 2003, and sounds as good as ever.

The songs blend blues, country and rock with an emphasis on rhythm ‘n’ soul. Vocally, Judd reveals the power of restraint-and-release while tapping into a well of emotion and wisdom. There’s plenty of variety, too, from the voodoo blues of “Ain’t No Thing” (with Susan Tedeschi) to spiritual “Things That I Lean On” (with Jason Isbell) to finger-snapping love song “Something You Can’t Live Without.” 

On her first album fronting a band, Wynonna brings the noise, for sure; but she also offers a master class on how to instill feeling into songs arranged in a variety of musical styles. (Michael McCall/AP)