Like many other people, I welcomed Lucinda Williams into my life with the release of the Grammy-winning Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, in 1998. Over the course of the last 10 years, Iâ€™ve been a fascinated observer of her career, both on record, and on the road. Iâ€™ve had the opportunity to see her perform live on numerous occasions, and although her backing band tended to change with every new tour, she has always had a knack for employing some of the finest musicians available. This is particularly true of her guitar players, a group that has included such greats as Gurf Morlix, J.J. Jackson, Kenny Vaughan, Bo Ramsey, and her current sidekick, the redoubtable Doug Pettibone, who shines brightly on this album.
To follow Williamsâ€™ career is to listen as she bares her broken heart time and again in her songs. But thereâ€™s good news this time out: â€œIâ€™m stepping out and writing about things other than unrequited love. But because thatâ€™s not part of my experience anymore doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™m going to stop being a songwriter,â€ she explains. â€œThere are plenty of other important things to write about — the state of the world for one thing — I donâ€™t buy into the myth that because you get to a certain level of contentment, you have to throw in the towel.â€ Hopefully some of her more satisfied contemporaries are listening.
Sure enough, Little Honey (Lost Highway) opens (after a false start, which is a bit of a inside joke, considering that Williams has always been well known as a perfectionist when it comes to her recordings) with the snarling rock nâ€™ roll of â€œReal Love.” About her new lover, who she found â€œstanding up behind an electric guitar,â€ she observes:
â€œThe thing about you so far, you squeeze my peaches
Then you send me postcards of girls on beaches
Youâ€™re drinking in a bar in Amsterdam
Iâ€™m thinking baby, far out, be my manâ€
As promised, Williams does not restrict herself to love songs. In the stunning â€œLittle Rock Star,â€ she uses her status as somewhat of an elder stateswoman among musicians to advise a younger generation of musicians who seem bent on self-destruction, telling them â€œto toss it away like that would be a shame.â€
Williams hasnâ€™t forgotten how to write about heartbreak, though. The beautiful â€œIf Wishes Were Horsesâ€ is the proof. Featuring beautiful, Floyd-Cramer informed piano playing by road band member Rob Burger, and a sympathetic harmony vocal from Pettibone, the song finds Williams pleading with a rejected lover to try one more time.
â€œIf wishes were horses
Iâ€™d have a ranch
Come on and give me another chanceâ€
Sorrow is tempered by the laughter evoked by the next track, a duet with Elvis Costello. On â€œJailhouse Tears,â€ the two old friends have fun with the traditional honky tonk ballad form, trading charges and counter-charges.
Costello: â€œThey locked me up and you locked me outâ€
Williams: â€œYou tried to steal my truck, but thatâ€™s not what this is aboutâ€
Costello: â€œI went to the corner to get a cold six-packâ€
Williams: â€œYouâ€™re a drunk, youâ€™re a stoner, you never came backâ€
The languid â€œRarityâ€ is about a talented, uncompromising songwriter whose words â€œspeak volumes … like Leonard Cohenâ€™s,â€ who has â€œno hits on the radio,â€ and who â€œis never gonna be a big star.â€ The song could be directed to a specific artist, much like the tribute to the late, unheralded Texas songwriter Blaze Foley (â€œDrunken Angelâ€) that she included on Car Wheels. It could also be more general, encouraging struggling songwriters to stay strong. Or maybe itâ€™s about the artist that Williams sometimes wishes she could still be.
If I ever have a wedding, I hope that â€œPlan to Marryâ€ can be our song. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, Williams recounts some of the ills of the world today, and then suggests that we marry because â€œlove is our weapon,â€ which we use to combat all of these problems.
If all of this isnâ€™t enough, thereâ€™s a kick-ass cover of the AC DC classic â€œLong Way to the Topâ€ to close the album.
It took Lucinda about six years to follow her 1992 album, Sweet Old World, with Car Wheels. It only took her about 18 months to follow last yearâ€™s brilliant West with this new album. Apparently, happiness is making her more prolific. She can still do the dark, moody, introspective thing with the best of them, but she has expanded her palette here and made the most eclectic album of her career.