Sometimes it seems Lucinda Williams is too good for this world. Since cutting her teeth on an acoustic blues collection for the Folkways label in 1979, she has released just four albums of originals in eighteen years, each for a different label. The first — 1980's Happy Woman Blues, also for Folkways — is merely wonderful. The other three — Lucinda Williams (1988, Rough Trade, then Chameleon, then Koch), Sweet Old World (1992, Chameleon) and now Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) — are perfect. Immersed in time-weathered musical materials, demonstrating a near-absolute mastery of the pop song craft that has been crystallizing at the conjunction of blues and country for half a century, Williams' writing is excellent only when it isn't superlative. Her lyrics are easeful, trenchant, imaginative, concrete and waste free, her tunes always right there and often inescapable. There isn't a duff song on the three records.
Yet beyond print media, where she's lionized whenever she sticks her head out of her lair, Lucinda Williams can hardly catch a break. She gets covered in Nashville and even won a songwriting Grammy after Mary-Chapin Carpenter cut the tongue out of "Passionate Kisses," and if Lucinda Williams maintains its steady sales pace, it will go gold around 2038. Smitten bizzers keep giving her advances, too. But she has never charted, and her labels have a terrible way of vaporizing. Say a little prayer that Mercury rides out the latest upheavals at Polygram.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the album that Mercury bought from American Recordings' Rick Rubin (who mixed all but one track), was a legendary six years in the making. Williams is such a perfectionist that she recorded it from scratch twice and then folded in more guest solos and recut vocals than even long-suffering co-producer Roy Bittan could fully digest — always with the perverse goal of making it sound less produced. And, astoundingly, that's what has happened. Not only is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road more perfect than the two albums that preceded it, which English grammar declares an impossibility, but it achieves its perfection by being more imperfect.
Dubious instrumental add-ons are crucial to this strategy: Gurf Morlix's acoustic slide guitar on "Jackson," Bittan's wisps of accordion on "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," Greg Leisz's blues mandolin on "Concrete and Barbed Wire." But the illusion of casualness is most palpable in the singing. Williams' big voice has always thrived on contained emotion — soul strengthened by its refusal of overkill. But not since the openhearted Happy Woman Blues has she gotten so much feeling on tape. This she accomplishes without belting — although the music rocks like guitar-bass-drums-plus should, she's never as loud or fast as someone dumber might be. She skillfully deploys the usual roughness tricks, from sandpaper shadings to full-scale cracks, but her main techniques are the drawl, emphasized to camouflage or escape her own sophistication, and the sigh, a breathy song-speech that lets her moan or croon or muse or coo or yearn or just feel pretty as the lyric permits and the mood of the moment demands.
The moods that prevail are defiance, regret and what has to be called nostalgia, although the reminiscences are so clear-eyed they deserve a stronger word. There's no single song here that makes as indelible a statement as "Passionate Kisses," and probably no hits, not even for Mary-Chapin Carpenter. But from the album's very first lines — in which the flat "Not a day goes by I don't think about you" sets up the ambush of "You left your mark on me, it's permanent [pause, we need a rhyme, fast] — a tattoo [gotcha!]," which is instantly trumped by "Pierce the skin, the blood runs through" and then swoons into a forlorn, unutterably simple "Oh, my baby" — Williams' every picked-over word and effect has something to say.
Whether it's the interrupted childhood memories of the title track, the imagistic shifts of "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," the one-chord rant chant "Joy" or the rerecorded old song "I Lost It," Williams' cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness — about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past — are always engaging in themselves. And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best — although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her — but that they're very much with us. The emotional dissociation and electronic noise that pop fans have learned to love feel natural to them, as they should. But we all subsist on a bedrock of human contact craved, achieved and too often denied. This truth we repress at everyone's peril, and without melodrama or sentimentality, Lucinda Williams is one of the rare contemporary artists who can make it real. If that makes her too good for this world, then too bad for the world.