Lucinda Williams – World Without Tears

Lucinda Williams
World Without Tears

Ever since 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it’s become difficult to find a review of a new Lucinda Williams album that doesn’t start with a sentence like, “Ever since 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road…” Of course, if anything this is a testimonial to that album’s quality and its importance, along with Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, in forming the Blonde on Blonde and Sgt. Pepper’s, respectively, of their particular sub-genre.
What Car Wheels did was leave Williams with a familiar, difficult choice: to repeat herself for a guaranteed audience, or to branch off in another creative direction. Fortunately, she chose the latter (while still holding onto that audience) with her subsequent release, Essence, sparing us all the several-year wait it might have taken for her to re-create the nuanced, slickly polished production that Steve Earle gave to Car Wheels. Essence was a raw album with a live-in-the-studio feel, hearkening back to earlier releases like Sweet Old World and Lucinda Williams (which, by the way, might remain her masterpiece, with the added bonus that far fewer people know about it than know about Car Wheels).
World Without Tears, like Essence, retains that raw emotional charge while dispensing with the naive desire of a song like Williams‘s “Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” in favor of a fully grown-up, sometimes embittered emotional gravity. The best of these songs deal with loss and regret in true country style, spinning them into gorgeous refrains, as on “Those Three Days” (which could be the album’s hit single if it weren’t for a couple of choice f-bombs) and “Ventura,” in which Williams channels Jimmie Dale Gilmour with her lilting vocals on lines like, “I wanna watch the ocean bend / The edges of the sun then / I wanna get swallowed up…” The band is tight and versatile, made up of Lucinda and three guys from her excellent touring group, and Williams co-produces with Mark Howard, giving herself tons of room to let her voice rise and fall, from the highs of the Rolling Stones-style, echoing-guitar rock of “Real Live Bleeding Fingers,” down to the whispers of the set closer, “Words Fell.”
In other songs, Williams follows the formula set by the last album, though without the results always standing up to comparison. In many ways, the sexually charged blues of “Righteously” and the brimstone of “Atonement” on World don’t quite match the sexually charged blues of “Essence” and the brimstone of “Get Right with God” on Essence. Also, Williams takes some departures here that might leave a few fans scratching their heads, as in the talkin’ blues (or are they rap?) experiments of “American Dream” and “Sweet Side.” Here her social conscious finds a voice in her songwriting, though powerful as it is, it doesn’t attain the pitch-perfect precision and artistry that her lyrics have on her heartbreak songs and on the bayou travelogue of Car Wheels. Some lines, like “You get defensive at every turn / You’re overly sensitive and overly concerned,” about a friend dealing with being abused as a child, are clunky to the point of being cringe-able.
For die-hard fans who eagerly await new releases from their favorite acts, hearing the new record often means seeing if the experiments that work balance out those that don’t (just ask a Radiohead fan). In this case I’m pleased to say they do, from the lonely, Midwestern sadness of “Minneapolis,” to the impressionistic “Fruits of My Labor,” with its quiet, tremolo-laced, old-school country strains of guitar and its lyrics that in many ways could be a reflection of the arc Williams’s life and career have taken since the ten-years-in-the-making overnight success of Car Wheels. Here she sings, “Come to my world and witness / all the things that have changed… / Baby, sweet baby if it’s all the same / Take the glory any day over the fame.” Lucinda has indeed always taken glory (and respect) over fame, and the results have been glorious, as she continues to make the kind of real country-blues Nashville shamelessly gave up on decades ago.