Listening to Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World, her first album in four years, you have to wonder how many voices she abandoned — country, rock, blues, gospel — on the way to achieving this one, which embodies and transcends them all. Sweet Old World begins with the near-pop single “Six Blocks Away,” the tale of a poet whose love is just out of reach. Duane Jarvis’s and Gurf Morlix’s guitars jangle through the mix, though Williams’s singing colors every song with a rural Louisiana rawness. The next track, “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” is a paean to a platonic relationship — that is, until the end, when she sings, “Well, I can’t stay around ’cause I’m going back South/But all I regret now is I never kissed your mouth.” Morlix’s delicate lead and slide fills decorate the tune (and the album) sparingly.
But Sweet Old World is a mixed bag. While the love songs express themselves as carnal confession — such as “Hot Blood,” in which Williams quivers when she hits the high notes — others (“Pineola,” “Sweet Old World”) are soaked in tragedy. Williams writes and sings them without irony. She conveys the loneliness of her protagonists not as an observer but as a participant in their circumstances. “He Never Got Enough Love” attains what Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” strove for. Even the cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will” that closes the album underlines her inability to remain separate from her characters.
Sweet Old World will go a long way toward establishing Lucinda Williams as one of popular music’s treasures. In her voice, we can hear the sound of desire itself.