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In exile, Lucinda Williams is chilliní like Dylan

"I kind of miss the days when I wasnít well known," Lucinda Williams says over the phone from Switzerland, where sheís playing dates before joining Neil Young for a tour that will bring them to the Tweeter Center this Tuesday, July 1. "Then, I was an Ďundiscovered geniusí when people heard my albums. Now, thereís a lot more expectations and criticism, so everything I write is under a microscope."

Nonetheless, Williams is happy to admit that her 1998 commercial breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), which sold more than a half-million copies, was liberating. "My performance fees have gone up quite a bit, and thatís really how I make my living. That success also made it easier to believe in myself as an artist and take more chances."

Her latest risk is World Without Tears (Lost Highway), an album that magnifies the full, rocking band sound of Car Wheels with loud blasts of electric guitar, loops, and a playful pickpocketís sense of musical appropriation that borrows liberally from country, R&B, gospel, and even hip-hop. Sometimes all of those genres connect in one number, like the single "Righteously," a tough, sexy love song.

The CD may represent the best collection of lyrics sheís penned. Even her father, the poet Miller Williams, who read one of his works at Bill Clintonís 1996 inauguration, thought so. "Iíve always shown my lyrics to my dad before Iíve gone into the studio, and heís been my editor, cutting things and making suggestions. This time he sent them all back without any marks. I called him and said, ĎDad, donít you have any comments or changes?í He said, ĎNo, this is the closest to poetry youíve ever written.í "

Williamsís previous album was 2001ís Essence (Lost Highway), an acoustic CD that drew on her folk and country roots and was built along the spine of her rhythm guitar and her dusty, Southern-accented voice. It makes a dramatic contrast with World Without Tears. The new albumís tales of love and pain unreel with similar artful grace, but they rock in a way that her work never has before. For one thing, her trademark acoustic-guitar playing barely appears on the disc, edged aside by her desire to bash out distorted electric chords and get off on raw volume.

"It was just time to let that urge out," she explains. "When I made Essence, people were upset because I didnít do another Car Wheels, so I got more criticism for that album than for anything else Iíd ever done. But thatís what I wanted to do. Now, Iíve just done what I wanted to do again, and World Without Tears is my most successful album."

So it is that 23 years and three Grammys into her recording career, sheís being hailed as a late-blooming rocker, and World Without Tears is being branded her Exile on Main Street. "I think that started getting bandied about because we all stayed in a mansion together and recorded live in one big room, like the Stones did for that album. A lot of people assume that ĎReal Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,í which is so raw, was inspired by the Rolling Stones, but I had been listening to a lot of Paul Westerberg when I wrote it. Things do creep in as influences, and I really love the early Stones, but to me this album is a natural progression. If you listen back to my records or have seen me live with the band, you know thereís a side of me that wants to rock out. I just gave that side free rein.

"Iím like Bob Dylan. I do what I want."

Lucinda Williams opens for Neil Young this Tuesday, July 1, at 7 p.m. at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield; call (617) 228-6000.

Issue Date: June 27 - July 2, 2003
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