- 26 Jan 21
Happy 68th Birthday, Lucinda Williams! To celebrate, we're revisiting our original reviews of a selection of her classic albums...
Lucinda Williams has travelled the hard road at times, and her spare and pained music has reflected that journey. Essence, however, is a more soulful and relaxed affair, and while it still has some testosterone twang in its make-up, it can hardly be described as a “country” album. It’s scope is far broader than that, closer to the cosmic American music that Gram Parsons talked about.
Some of those who played on her last album are back, and in a more dominant role this time out; what’s more, guitarists Bo Ramsey and Charlie Sexton are involved in production duties, and the whole shebang seems to have had a less traumatic and mellower passage for all concerned on this occasion – a fact which is reflected in the looser groove apparent over the whole album.
The songs deal with topics that are both highly pertinent and pervasive, such as communication or the lack of it in the information age (‘Out Of Touch’); loneliness, (‘Lonely Girls’); religion and fundamentalism (‘Get Right With God’); nostalgia (‘Bus To Baton Rouge’) and passion, on the dynamic, funky title track. All are undeniably Williams, her voice instantly recognisable, a focal point that has never sounded better in her long career.
She’s a great songwriter and a fine artist – and Essence is a major achievement. Essential listening.
World Without Tears (2003)
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! For 15 years now, Lucinda Williams has been cultivating a growing audience with a series of gentle singer-songwriter records, none of which could have prepared her audience for this astonishing leap into the unknown.
World Without Tears is a spiky, vibrant, sexy beast of a record. Williams and her acoustic guitar are still the centre point, except now she’s backed by a noisy rock ‘n’ roll trio. The record swoops confidently from style to style, the blues of opener ‘Fruits Of My Labour’, the Dylanesque word play of ‘Sweet Side’ and the ragged country rock of ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings’, all sitting naturally side by side.
The singer herself is in electric form, displaying a voice that ranges from a melodic southern drawl to snarling punk – the standout track ‘Those Three Days’ sees her abandoning almost all aspects of melody and rhythm in her desire to slam an uncaring lover. ‘Atonement’, meanwhile, sets out to damn the very Bible belt believers who probably made up a lot of her audience in the first place.
Yet despite – or maybe even because of – the cranked up guitars, the upfront sensuality (‘Righteously’ exudes a wanton sexuality) and occasional pot shots at the American dream, this is still a country record at heart. It just happens to be one that places in her in the company of the true maverick geniuses of the genre.
This is Louisiana-born alt-country heroine Lucinda Williams’ first album since 2003, and its songs emerged during the period when her mother passed on and she moved from one relationship into another one. Not surprising then, that the bleak soundscapes evoke Wrecking Ball-era Emmylou Harris while never descending into maudlin self-pity.
Williams delivers her songs with a hint of wistfulness that doesn’t cloud the music’s intent, a philosophy of resignation perhaps best illustrated in ‘Words’, where she explains the solace she gets from her craft: “You can’t kill my words, they know no bounds”. ‘Come On’ is a triumphal blend of spite and Springsteen grit, as Williams angrily tells a former lover to fuck off, an ironic choice of phrasing given that his major felony seems to have been a lack of performance in the sack. On ‘Unsuffer Me’ she pleads for love to relieve her despair, and ‘Learning How To Live’ is a disturbing country-rock stroll about bittersweet heartache. ‘Are You Alright’ is a compassionate epistle to an ex, although Williams could equally be singing to her bereft self.
West works because it juxtaposes a sense of vulnerability with a desire not to stay down for long, and is tinged with a sense of realism not always present in her rivals. It’s also one of the most provocative albums about break-up since Bob spilled blood all over the tracks.
Little Honey (2008)
No second acts in American lives? Hogwash. Lucinda Williams provides instruction for those who feel fucked around and fobbed off at 40-something. Ten years ago (and 20 years after she released her first album, a collection of folk covers for Smithsonian/Folkways), she kickstarted her own comeback with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, a record so perfectly written, crafted and executed it just couldn’t be denied.
Now a cool, kohl-eyed 55-year-old, the Louisiana songwriter’s ninth studio album finds her energised, focused and hungry. Lucinda, one figures, is the kind of gal who, when she doesn’t have a sweetheart in her life, will sleep with her telecaster. But she’s also got something of a nurturer in her soul. If in previous years she’s written compassionate tributes like ‘Drunken Angel’ for Blaze Foley, here she’s counselling little rock ‘n’ roll lambs and gifted callow souls in ‘Little Rock Star’ (reputedly inspired by a newspaper report about Pete Doherty) and ‘Rarity’.
Throughout Little Honey the production is clear and punchy, the playing skilled but just on the right side of sloppy, and the songs are strong as any she’s recorded. Most of these tunes join the dots between George Jones, the Replacements and Big Star: the country soul ballad ‘Tears Of Joy’, the devastated ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ (maybe the best take-me-back song since ‘Reconsider Me’), or ‘Circles And X’s’ and ‘Jailhouse Tears’, all Stonesy guitars, Muscle Shoals swing and wrung out vocals.
But it’s not all downbeat: there’s also the pure pop surge of ‘Real Love’, the garage raunch of ‘Honey Bee’ and a cover of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ that finds the morality tale at the heart of Young, Young and Scott’s ripsnorter without losing any of the grit.
Little Honey is sweet indeed.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20 (2016)
Inspired by her countless treks back and forth along the 1,500 mile Interstate 20, which traverses much of her home patch between South Carolina and Texas, in Ghosts Of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams offers a personal travelogue, via songs that are mostly autobiographical evocations and memories.
A rambling, impressionistic, and at times unfocused affair, it’s about as far from her commercial breakthrough, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, as she has travelled. Still, and here’s the rub: despite the brooding atmosphere and contemplative lyrics, Williams’ world-weary drawl and irresistible guitar twang get you every time.
The subdued opener ‘Dust’ is inspired by a poem written by her late father, the poet Miller Williams. ‘House of Earth’ continues in a melancholy mood, while the lovely, lilting ballad ‘Place In My Heart’ – built around a classic pop/country chord progression – is the kind of song you could easily imagine Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers performing. A kind of darkness descends on the chilling ‘Death Came’ – which has echoes of Dylan’s ‘Sarah’ – while the country-blues of ‘Doors of Heaven’ finds Williams revisiting the territory she explored on ‘Changed The Locks’, from her debut album.
Nostalgic childhood reminiscences are evoked on the sublime, epic, nine-minute ‘Louisiana Story’, in which she recalls, “running, chasing after the ice-cream wagon, mama can I have a quarter?” It’s not all happy memories though; on the swampy title track she grieves (“I went through hell when I was younger”), while Sun Studios-era rock and roll backdrops the equally regret-filled ‘Bitter Memory’. A version of Springsteen’s working-man’s lament, ‘Factory’, fits in neatly here – the fiery guitar solo and insistently slow rhythm emphasising the drudgery of hard labour.
Elsewhere, the Neil Young-like ‘Close The Door On Love’ is the sort of heartfelt country-rock ballad Williams excels at, while the Tex Mex-flavoured ‘If My Love Could Kill’ recalls the more contemporary desert textures of Calexico. This is a ramble well worth taking...
This Sweet Old World (2017)
Sweet Old World, released 25 years ago, tends to be overshadowed by its follow up, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, an acknowledged classic which won a Grammy and made Rolling Stone’s “greatest albums of all time” list. This is a shame, as the original album, with its meditations on suicide, and timeless songs such as ‘Little Angel, Little Brother’ and ‘Pineola’, warrants further attention. Williams’ manager/husband Tom Overby certainly thought so, pitching the idea of this complete re-recording. Williams was initially reluctant, the original process having been plagued by an unsympathetic record company, but changed her mind once she, and her crack touring band, started into it.
In the intervening years, Williams has released a pretty much flawless series of records, honing her sound, as her voice grew to match her resolutely adult song writing. It’s that voice, and an all round tougher production, which make this worth having. Opener ‘Six Blocks Away’ is transformed from something that might have suited The Bangles on a good day to a chiming beauty that the late Tom Petty would have been proud to call his own. ‘Something About What Happens When We Touch’, one of Williams’ absolute classics in its original form, is now imbued with a greater longing, carried by her haunting vibrato. The title track, a love letter to the departed, is recast as an even more affecting elegy, the equal of Emmylou Harris’s breathless reading on 1995’s Wrecking Ball. Her cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Which Will’ is now a late night, country soul epic.
If you’re a fan of Williams, and you really should be, you’re on safe ground here. I love the original, but this is even better.
Good Souls Better Angels (2020)
As far as I - and I’m not on my own here either - am concerned, Lucinda Williams is a great artist. Across a near-peerless series of albums – you can name your own favourites, but I’ll plump for Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, World Without Tears, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, and 2017’s re-recording of 1992’s Sweet Old World, This Sweet Old World – she has deservedly come to be cherished. Her voice is as rough as worn leather one minute, then tender as a mother’s hug the next, and her song writing ranges from the beauty of ‘Lonely Girls’ to the arse-kicking of ‘Real Life Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings’.
Williams has a long history with the blues too, having recorded Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie songs for her 1979 debut Ramblin’, and for the most part on Good Souls Better Angels, she’s back howling at the crossroads. There’s no two ways about it, there are songs on this album that make for hard going, but, then again, Williams is tackling some hard subjects.
How could a song like ‘Wakin’ Up’ which deals with domestic abuse be anything but harrowing? It’s not intended to be a comfortable listen, and it isn’t, as Williams’ vocal gets more and more intense as the track progresses, broken only by Stuart Mathis somehow managing to put violent horror through his guitar.
You couldn’t address the subject of ‘Man Without A Soul’ – and we all know the ‘man’ she’s aiming at – with a sweet ballad. “You are a man without truth, a man of greed, a man of hate. A man of envy, a man of doubt. You’re the man without a soul.” The time for punch pulling has passed, but at least the song’s ending offers some modicum of consolation with, “it’s just a matter of when, ‘cause it’s coming down.” Let us hope so.
‘Bad News Blues’ sums it all up. Basically, grim tidings are coming at us from every angle, and we’re all “knee deep in it”, surrounded as we are by “liars and lunatics, fools and thieves.” The lolloping gait of the tune owes a slight debt to Dylan when he heads towards something like ‘Cold Irons Bound’, which is hardly a nursery rhyme either.
Blues tropes are everywhere, not just in the exemplary playing of the band. John the Revelator shows up in “Big Rotator’, Williams is gonna ‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell’ as she heads “down past the bottom where evil won’t go.”
When a glint of hope breaks through the despair, roses bloom in this briar patch. The songs may deal with depression and the ills of social media, respectively, but when Williams’ voice cracks and trembles during ‘Big Black Train’ or the gentle pace of ‘Shadows & Doubts’, she could break a tyrant’s heart. The message of perseverance in ‘When The Way Gets Dark’ is filled with warmth, the tremolo in both voice and guitar becoming almost hymnal, but Williams saves the best until last with the closing seven minutes of ‘Good Souls’. It’s another plea to keep on keeping’ on, and the brushed drums and walking bass are gossamer-light behind Mathis’ country/soul picking, which carries Williams as she implores the angels and good folk to give her the strength to stay strong. You’d have to be pretty cold inside not to feel something.
It would appear that this was a record Williams had to make, and, as I’ve said, it’s a long way from easy going, but when it catches you, you’re reminded of what makes her so special in the first place.