Friday, April 14, 2017

Lucinda Williams – "Changed the Locks" (1988)

I changed the number on my phone
So you can't call me up at home
And you can't say those things to me
That make me fall down on my knees

Lucinda Williams follows the "Keep it simple, stupid" principle.

“Changed the Locks” – which was released in 1988 on her eponymous third album – is about as simple a song as was ever written, consisting of a single musical concept and a single lyrical concept.  (If you’re a mediocre musician and you need to learn a song in ten minutes, I’d recommend “Changed My Locks.”)

The song consists of six verses, each of which is metrically identical – each has an AABB rhyme pattern, and the first line of each verse is repeated after the fourth line of that verse is sung.  

The verses are musically indistinguishable from one another as well.  In fact, the lines of each verse are musically indistinguishable – each line is sung over the same simple chord pattern.

When it comes to the song’s lyrical content, each verse is a variation on a single theme.  Each begins with the singer declaring that she has changed something in her life – she’s changed the lock on her front door, changed the number on her phone, changed the kind of car she drives, changed the kind of clothes she wears, and so on – ostensibly to keep her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband at a distance.  “I am sooooo over you!” seems to be the message she is trying to communicate.

There’s not even a chorus to complicate things.  

Just because a song is simple doesn’t mean it’s not good.  “Changed My Locks” wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is if it wasn’t simple.

Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics to “Changed My Locks.”

Here’s the second verse, which is quoted at the beginning of this post:

I changed the number on my phone
So you can't call me up at home
And you can't say those things to me
That make me fall down on my knees

Why is the singer so afraid of getting a phone call from her ex?  Because he’s going to say something nasty or threatening?  

Hardly.  She hears that he’ll call her and go right into the kind of irresistible love talk that leaves her weak in the knees. 

Here’s the third verse:

I changed the kind of car I drive
So you can't see me when I go by
And you can't chase me up the street
And you can't knock me off of my feet

She’s not afraid that the dude is going to literally knock her down.  No, no, no – her concern is that an encounter with him will knock her off of her feet emotionally.

The final verse hammers this point home:

I changed the name of this town
So you can't follow me down
And you can't touch me like before
And you can't make me want you more

The first rhyming couplet is a little confusing if you take it literally.  What the singer means when she says that she “changed the name of this town” is that she packed up and moved to a different city because she realizes that if she runs into the guy and he touches her once more, it will make her want him even more than she already does.

Get the picture?  The singer’s not trying to avoid the guy because she’s sooooo over him, but because she’s not sooooo over him.  She knows that if they cross paths that she won’t be able to resist him – she’ll fall down on her knees to him.

Might as well face it, lady, you’re addicted to the dude.  Just like an alcoholic trying to avoid temptation doesn’t hang out where other people are drinking, the singer needs to avoid proximity to her ex if she has any hope of freeing herself from the emotional hold he has on her.

*     *     *     *     *

Lucinda Williams never graduated from high school, but managed to get admitted to the University of Arkansas.  She dropped out after one semester.

Her father, Miller Williams, was an English professor at Arkansas for decades.  Williams was a prolific poet who got a lot of attention when he was asked to read one of his poems at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about his career was that he started out as a biology professor before switching to English.

Lucinda released a couple of albums when she was in her twenties, but they sank without a trace.  Her third album – which includes “Changed the Locks” – was released in 1988, when she was 35.  Neither it nor her next album (both of which were produced by someone named – I kid you not – Gurf Morlix) did much better.

Lucinda Williams and Gurf Morlix
She began to focus on songwriting and won the 1994 Grammy for best country song for “Passionate Kisses,” which had been a big hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Williams finally hit it big as a recording artist with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which was released in 1998.  She was an overnight success at age 45.  

If you’re good at math, you’ve probably already figured out that Lucinda Williams is now 64 years old – emphasis on the “old.”  (She’s barely six months younger than me, which means she is very old indeed.)

You can click here to read Bill Buford’s 2000 New Yorker profile of Lucinda Williams.  (Buford is a very good writer, but that piece is a little overheated.)

*     *     *     *     *

I discovered “Changed the Locks” while watching the second season of the Showtime series, The Affair.  Here's a clip of one of the characters singing along with the song as it plays on the radio as she drinks a glass of wine (not her first of the day, I might add) and gets dressed to go out on a hot date:

I’ll have more to say about The Affair (which is a wonderful guilty-pleasure TV show) in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Here’s “Changed the Locks”:

And here's a video of Lucinda performing the song live in 1990.  (Her guitar player is the aforementioned Gurf Morlix.)

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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