Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20

Williams grapples with mortality on a stark, emotionally raw alt-country masterpiece

Credit: David McClister

With blowsy, parched vocals, languorous tempos, straggly melodies and flyaway guitar lines, Lucinda Williams' 12th album feels a little like an alt-country picture of Dorian Gray. You could also call it a portrait of the artist as an older woman: time-scarred, unapologetic, but still potent. Yeah, it's literary; yeah, it's the polar opposite of cosmetic-surgery pop. As such, it's not for everyone. But its jazzy rawness represents a high point of emotional craft in a career defined by it.

Credit Williams' gorgeously ravaged phrasing – not that far, in its way, from Billie Holiday's 1958 swan song, Lady in Satin – and the lyrics, which seem colored by the passing last year of the singer's father, poet Miller Williams. Mortality's shadow is explicit in "Death Came" and "Doors of Heaven," implicit in a stark reading of "Factory" (Bruce Springsteen's tribute to his own dad) and the faintly biblical, breathtakingly carnal Woody Guthrie cover "House of Earth." ("You'll leave some drops of honey on my couch/I'll leave a couple dollars in your pouch," she moans, delivering the line as if her tongue is swollen.) Illuminating these dark corners are dazzling arrangements built on the twinned guitars of Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell. The latter, who has evolved from an A-list jazz impressionist with country inflections to a journeyman Americana session dude capable of almost anything, here comes out as a straight-up jam swami, whether building intricate webs with Leisz or penciling handsome grace notes between Lu's phrases on songs that regularly stretch past the five-minute mark. You may not hear a more satisfyingly generous display of guitar interplay this year. And that's just the gravy.