April 10, 2003

bLUe and Beautiful

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Lucinda, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Loo-sin-da: the tip of the tongue like a damaged bird darting, taking three steps to tap at three on the teeth. Loo. Sin. Da. And here gentle reader I must admit I have been aroused simply by the sound of Lucinda’s voice. Sometimes it is simply too beautiful, aptly described by some admirer as “three parts honey and two parts bourbon.”

In 2001, prior to the release of Lucinda’s previous masterpiece Essence, Time Magazine elected her America’s Greatest Songwriter and I know no better contender for the title. Though commercially unsuccessful prior to 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda has been critically hailed since her 1979 debut Ramblin’. In those twenty years Lu remained in the shadows while many artists scored hits with her songs, most famously Mary Chapin Carpenter’s, inferior to the original, version of “Passionate Kisses” and Tom Petty’s version of “Changed the Locks.” Lucinda’s greatest strength as a songwriter is her ability to sew her lyrics, vocal delivery, and musical accompaniment into a tapestry whose sum is exponentially greater than the individual threads. Reading Lucinda’s lyrics one appreciates the simplicity and honesty of her poetry, but to hear Lu moan her words atop a gentle guitar line is to enter a realm that is heavenly yet can only be crafted out of mortal pain. She is that good.

Not the most prolific of artists, Lucinda’s reappearance with World Without Tears, less than two years after Essence, is a surprise. However, one listen explains it all. Lucinda’s got a broken heart again and if on Essence she was quietly lonely, two years later Lu is longing, lusting, and losing control. Coming off a year of non-stop touring, World Without Tears was recorded live in a 1920s mansion in Los Angeles. Whereas Williams’ previous effort was a subtle lush record with all the instruments blending to provide an atmosphere owing much to Nick Drake’s finest moments, World Without Tears is a wonderfully sparse affair where every note and every drumbeat feels isolated in an empty room.

Most surprising on World Without Tears is Lucinda’s experimentation with various vocal stylings. In addition to her beautiful soulful croon, Lucinda growls all over “Atonement”; sounds like a rambling and rapping Louisiana-bred country singer on “Righteously”; alternates singing with a more plaintive spoken delivery on “American Dream”; and mimics Dylan’s intonations on “Like A Rolling Stone” in “Sweet Side.” Some of these may sound like questionable decisions but every single one of them is a success.

Musically while mostly sticking to the slow and sad, Lu recalls the harder moments of Car Wheels by revisiting Southern rock and reviving Skynyrd with soul on “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.” Most surprising is “Atonement” a dirty distorted blues jam with a stomping percussion that sounds like it came from the depths of a Tom Waits record.

Knowing Lucinda’s reputation as a powerful woman, often placed on the pedestal of feminism, one might be surprised to find Williams’ new record drenched with need and longing. Yearning for companionship, comfort, spiritual peace, and sex infects every song on the album. Herein lies Lucinda’s greatest strength: her ability to admit weakness, to define, redefine and reinvent the meaning behind the words ‘lovesick blues.’ Her power is her ability to reveal. The courage not to hide what is so naturally hidden. Every single review of every single Lucinda Williams album will tell you her songs are honest, but this really fails to capture how these songs burn and ache. It is a miracle that these songs while packed with so much emotion never feel overwrought or contrived. From the opening guitar tremolos of “Fruits of My Labor” Lucinda’s slightly nasal drawl quivers on a road towards redemption never quite getting there but tracing a chilling and unforgettable journey. Along the way she perfects a stew of country, blues, folk and rock, binding all the ingredients together with irresistible songwriting.

When Lucinda Williams was 47 and working on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road it was hard to predict whether she would ever evolve from writing some great songs to making timeless records. Now at 53 with the release of World Without Tears she has made her third consecutive five star (oops tower) record. She is publicly proclaimed as the greatest living songwriter, but the college age population remains remarkably ignorant of Lucinda instead choosing to worship over-hyped mediocrities proclaimed to be the next life-changing songwriters. Some of them write memorable songs but rest assured none of them approach Lucinda. So listen up friends, this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lucinda.

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin