Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears opens with a note of tremolo guitar. For a fraction of a second it hangs there, like water waiting to drip from a faucet, unfinished but perfect. "Fruits of My Labor," the song that follows, is languorous, unadulterated soul. Brushes circle a snare head, and the bass takes its sweet time; Williams' drawl, scraping the high notes, summons the spirit of Otis Redding. "Tangerines and persimmons and sugar cane/Grapes and honeydew melon, enough fit for a queen," she sings, rolling the words on her tongue.
World Without Tears follows up not just Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams' 1998 masterpiece about American roadways and the search for impossible love, but also the relatively underrated Essence, from 2001, on which her gaze turned quietly but devastatingly inward. Musically, it's as superb as anything she's ever done. Williams recorded this one live in a 1920s L.A. mansion, and the arrangements are wonderfully spare: Pedal steel, harmonica and Wurlitzer flesh out her songs' gorgeous amalgams of country, blues and Southern rock. Doug Pettibone's electric-guitar solo on "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Strings" evokes the poetic economy of Keith Richards at his Exile on Main Street finest.
But underneath the sublime sounds, something crucial is missing. Williams has never been one to flinch from dark subjects
she's described funerals, peered over bridges into rivers where lovers disappeared
but here the bleakness is relentless. She gives us a bevy of references to heroin addiction, including two graphic images of characters throwing up; "Sweet Side" deals with child abuse; "Minneapolis" may allude to rape. The album's most ambitious songs are also its weakest. The loud, macho blues workout "Atonement" makes me want to head to the bar. "American Dream," with its semi-rapped lyrics and gnarled patriotism, is an overwrought mess.
By the time you get to the end of World Without Tears, you're in a grouchy mood. Where's the sweetness that she always gave us to offset the suffering? Where's the wounded innocence, the child within always believing in something better? It's not her pain we love, it's the redemption she's always delivered with it. Williams can't always be brilliant. But the tantalizing promise of that first tremolo note makes the eventual disappointment of Tears a little more bitter to the taste.