On her first two albums, which went largely unnoticed at the time but were reissued in light of her first leap in notoriety, Louisiana-born Lucinda Williams sings poignant songs in a rich, world-weary voice, drawing on blues, folk, country and rock, but resisting all pigeonholes. Ramblin’on My Mind is a warm, lively album of covers, including three Robert Johnson songs. (The album title was shortened to Ramblin’ for its 1991 re-release; a cassette edition available from Folkways in the intervening years was named Ramblin’ Early Blues.)
While Ramblin’ shows off Williams’ affecting vocals and her roots — from the bayou to the church choir to the Opry — the more rock-oriented Happy Woman Blues proves her to be an evocative song-crafter akin to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Smoke-stained bars, open roads and a heart that never learns are well-worn subjects, but Williams rewrites them in a way that is both contemporary and uncynical.
Williams later recorded for CBS, which decided she wasn’t marketably country or rock enough and dropped her. She continued touring, honing a collection of songs that became Lucinda Williams. Her second debut is a near-perfect album of originals (plus a wrenching version of a Howlin’ Wolf number) played with a band led by guitarist/co-producer Gurf Morlix. This is an unflinching self-portrait of a woman with mythic powers to remake herself and the world (“Changed the Locks”), to sketch working-class portraits worthy of author Tobias Wolff (“The Night’s Too Long”) and to let her hair down for a zydeco romp (“Crescent City”). But mostly she’s a lover; “Side of the Road” (a poetic declaration of independence within a committed relationship) and the meditative and erotic “Like a Rose” are both especially moving. The decade-on reissue adds bonus live tracks.
Passionate Kisses reprises the album’s catchy, earnest plea for happiness (a song that became a hit in 1993 for Mary-Chapin Carpenter) and adds tracks from her lean years: three songs recorded live at an LA radio station plus an ’83 demo featuring Taj Mahal on guitar and harp. Not a place to begin, but a between-albums snack for fans.
That album that finally followed, Sweet Old World, is another sterling example of a distinctive songwriter presenting her creations in simple, handsomely wrought settings. Rather than gravitate toward Nashville clichés, the firm, clear and understated playing and production (by Williams, Morlix and an engineer) lets the abundant twang and vibrato in her singing — and originals that view the undersides of love, often in the wistful past tense — carry the regional load. On paper, the stirring verses of “Something About What Happens When We Talk” appear love-affirming, but Lucinda sings them in such a way that you just know things won’t end well, and they don’t: she leaves town, ruing a risk never taken. In “Hot Blood,” she can’t even work her way from desire to regret. “Six Blocks Away” makes even that minor gulf insurmountable. The harrowing “Pineola” concerns a suicide, as does the Mexican-inflected title track.
The more she sings in the first person, the more you’re tempted to worry for her, to feel emotionally involved from a useless distance. Sweet Old World is more than halfway done before she offers up a bright patch, and that’s only a declaration of troubled loving in the roadhouse snap of “Lines Around Your Eyes.” A plain, sober rendition of Nick Drake’s “Which Will” ends the album with an enigmatic (and enigmatically absent) question mark. Essential Lucinda Williams.
She returned six years and countless encomiums later, with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a disjointed collection in which Williams parks her once-potent vibrato, waxes nostalgic and uses geography to moan about men. As the failed romances she can’t get past (“Greenville,” “Joy,” “Can’t Let Go” “Metal Firecracker,” “Still I Long for Your Kiss,” “Jackson”) pile up, Williams gives herself a good talking to but still comes up with in an emotional cul-de-sac with an uneven batch of songs. Abandoning the easy craft and focus of her earlier work, this self-referentialism (which is not so far from self-pity) feels at once unfinished and fussed-over. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which describes some misbegotten joint and then stoops to a recitation of bar signs before she sails off into an anecdote about a past lover who wanted her to jump in the river with him, might be two incomplete songs pasted together. Taking a page from her childhood, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” loads up on the heartfelt tug of real life long ago, but each verse ends with the titular refrain like a light flashing in your face. “Lake Charles” goes down the same path without any such annoyance, but it’s far less eloquent going on downright plain. She variously sounds like Sheryl Crow (“Drunken Angel,” “Right in Time”), a cornpone cowgirl (“Concrete and Barbed Wire”) and a tuneless voodoo rock princess (“Joy”). The long list of musicians and producers contributing to this unfocused over-reach includes Morlix, Steve Earle, Springsteen sideman Roy Bittan, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Sexton, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and others. The 2006 reissue is a double-disc set that includes outtakes and a live 1998 concert.
Williams left complications and unsteadiness behind for the helpfully less ambitious Essence, which relocates the strength of her sincerity in artistry rather than effort. She doesn’t work to push her music where it doesn’t innately want to go (as she declared in “I Lost It” on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it”), downplaying style for plain-spoken content. This mainstream update to the unvarnished directness of Sweet Old World starts slow and flirts with blandness but sparks to life about halfway through. The gently tuneful “Lonely Girls,” the brash “Steal Your Love” (which she sings in a sleepy Liz Phair voice), the exceedingly unhurried “I Envy the Wind” and the equally languorous “Blue” make an unpromising start, but “Are You Down,” which digresses into a genial guitar-and-organ jam is the turning point, and what follows — all the way to the painfully beautiful “Broken Butterflies” — is extremely fine. The seething desire of “Essence” brings on a stirring chorus that she sings with conviction. “Reason to Cry,” in which she sounds a bit like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, delivers her usual heartbroken post-mortem as a handsome waltz. Powered by several layers of slide guitar, “Get Right With God” dredges up generations of tradition for a determined devotional that sounds a hundred years old. In a sense, this is a replay of her first album (only the tunes are hers) and a more honest recalculation of its immediate predecessor. Pointedly, “Bus to Baton Rouge” finds a much more rewarding place on the map than any of Car Wheels‘ trips to nowhere.
The focal pendulum swings again on World Without Tears, an eclectic and intentionally raw-sounding hodgepodge in which Williams finally detaches herself from the specifics of country traditionalism to settle along the universal buss of rootsy, rootless American music, the dusty bar-room decency of rusticus genericus that at best is home to John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Wilco and other Triple A radio staples and at worst makes possible wretched refuse like the House of Blues. From the sublime (“Fruits of My Labor”) to the ridiculous (“Righteously,” which namechecks John Coltrane and seeks to rhyme the title with “constantly”) in the first 10 minutes, the album proceeds through a Stonesy monotone (“Bleeding Fingers”), a petulant sing-song accusation (“Those Three Days”), an awful lumbering one-chord religion boogie (“Atonement”), an awfuler two-chord semi-rap (“Sweet Side”), an even worse short story list of grievances spoken over a rainy Doors ramble, an old-timey list of grievances and so on. Beyond the musical unevenness of an album whose finer qualities interleave those mounting miscalculations, a rising suspicion that misery is of more comfort to her than happiness makes the tenor of Williams’ songs increasingly hard to bear. Suffering for art may be noble, but wallowing in disappointment is not a spectator sport.
Tastefully co-produced by Hal Willner, the dolorous and enervated West reins in some (not all) of Williams’ willful stylistic misadventures while holding fast to her golden triumvirate of death, love and longing. As usual, she’s living in a world of lost and found. Her mother’s death, addressed lovingly in “Mama You Sweet” and obliquely in “Fancy Funeral” (in which the frugal auteur argues against burying too much money in the ground), and a batch of breakup songs (“Learning How to Live,” “Everything Has Changed”) tilt the balance against the tender connections of “Where Is My Love?” and “West,” which contains the lovely image of “I look off in the distance / and blow a kiss your way.” But Williams drops such artistry and wastes one of the disc’s only melodic hooks in “Come On,” hurling clumsy schoolyard insults (and forcing both syntax and punctuation) to put down someone who “didn’t even make me, come on.” The clunky coinage of “Unsuffer Me” recalls “Righteously,” and it all fall aparts in the nine semi-rapped minutes of “Wrap My Head Around That.” Williams seems content to play herself in this movie.