Lucinda Williams

   Ramblin' (Smithsonian Folkways, 1979)
    Happy Woman Blues (Smithsonian Folkways, 1980)
      Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, 1988)
     Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992)
      Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998)
     Essence (Lost Highway, 2001)
    World Without Tears (Lost Highway, 2003)
    Live @ the Fillmore (Lost Highway, 2005)
      West (Lost Highway, 2007)
    Little Honey (Lost Highway, 2008)

In the Nineties, Lucinda Williams grew into one of America's best songwriters. A Louisiana-bred poet's daughter, she mixed country, blues and folk on rich, meticulously made records like her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, writing from the perspective of a blue-collar Southerner who was both sensual and neurotic. Williams' first two albums offer hints of her greatness—but only hints. Ramblin' on My Mind is the less satisfying. That is, until she gets to "Great Speckled Bird," the strange quasi-hymn indelibly linked with Roy Acuff. In Williams' hands, the song sounds vital and mesmerizing as her crystalline, keening voice evokes the unsettling mystery of larger forces shaping our lives. As the one honest, deeply felt performance on the album, it points the way to Happy Woman Blues, where Williams comes back with a collection of original songs more representative of her own life and better suited to her style. "Lafayette" and "Louisiana Man" are loving reminiscences of places and people in her home state. Otherwise, Williams appears ambiguous and compelling in recounting some dangerous and ill-fated liaisons.

Lucinda Williams is such a startling advance over her first two releases that it seems to have been done by a different artist. The writing is sharp and tough, with plenty of tender moments rendered in a heartfelt manner. She's moved foursquare into rock & roll, with conviction and assurance. "I Just Wanna See You So Bad," the album's opener, comes out of the Springsteen school, but the rest of the album hews closer to country-rock and folk-rock arrangements. The indelible "Passionate Kisses," for instance, remains a high watermark in Williams' career: The track earned her a songwriting grammy, but only thanks to a sterile, Nashville-ified cover version by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Sweet Old World showed Williams was a damned determined artist: She'd already overcome enough record company bureaucracy to destroy two ordinary careers. It's essentially an album about characters shadowed by death—its tragedies, its allure, how it unites the living. So much so that Williams has to tell audiences when she performs "Little Angel, Little Brother," her affectionate sibling portrait, "He's not dead, you know."

Recorded over six years and with three producers, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a sharply-rendered, intentionally messy set about growing up and getting older in the Louisiana and Texas that Williams knows all too well. The album pays off with a faultless accumulation of faces, fights, keening swamp guitar and sighing accordion, strong drink and stronger lust in an album about places shadowed by memory. Williams' mix of songs and sound are so enduring and deep here that everything she did before them seems like sketches.

Williams' songwriting slips a bit over her next two albums, yet each set contains some killer tracks. Essence is her smoothest album: The lyrics aren't as concrete as on her other albums, but fancy touches such as harmony choruses sound great, and Williams can hook you even with old notions such as the love-addict metaphor of the title track. World Without Tears is Williams' hardest-rocking album, recorded quickly in Bob Dylan's bang-it-out mode, which results in some infelicities in the vocals (better the talking blues of "American Dream" than the semi-rap of "Sweet Side"). Despite a few wistful interludes, the album is the opposite of its title, filled with currents of sexual violence, drug damage, and "how sorrow finds a home." Messy (not sloppy), gloomy, and grand, World Without Tears appeared with ideal, mordant timing: America was at war, sunk in a morass of confusion and doubts.

Williams' sole live release is a two-disc set that unfortunately focuses too heavily on Essence. Yet it does pack a couple of powerful punches: Guitarist Doug Pettibone anchors most of the cuts with intense, fuzzed-out solos and, on "Joy," Williams sounds more pissed off than she does when she recorded the song almost a decade earlier.

If anyone feared that one of Williams had lost her mojo, West would put those worries to rest. After suffering the loss of her mother and a breakup with a longtime boyfriend, Williams returned with her saddest collection of songs ever. "Are You Alright" is a wonderfully spare ballad that's strengthened by Williams' lyrical simplicity: "Are you sleeping through the night?/Do you have someone to hold you tight?/Do you have someone to hang out with?/Do you have someone to hug and kiss you?" Elsewhere, she remembers her mother with warmth and affection (the tender lullaby "Mama You Sweet"), deals with loneliness ("Learning How To Live") and wonders whether the recently deceased really need to be honored with a costly funeral when the living need to pay for groceries and rent ("Fancy Funeral"). Bolstered by lush string orchestration and production from Hal Willner, West is Williams' best record since Car Wheels.

With the release of Little Honey, Williams finally found happiness with a new boyfriend, her manager Tom Overby. But her songs seem to have suffered as a result. Except for the rocking "Real Love" and "Jailhouse Tears" (featuring Elvis Costello), Williams sounds like she's coasting: Tracks like "Tears of Joy" come off like slickly-produced bar-band rock and Williams' gift for writing compact tales of rural country life now give way to cliches ("If Wishes Were Horses") and bland first-person accounts of falling in love. Even the great falter now and again.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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