Lucinda Williams was upset, and she wanted everyone to know why. " It makes me so sad, " she explained to the packed audience in a large Cleveland nightclub. " I just canít believe that John Lee Hooker is gone. Him and Joey Ramone in a couple months. Shit. "
Probably there arenít many musicians who would feel so passionately for the passing of both a 49-year-old punk and an 83-year-old blues master, but as some of us at that June 2001 concert knew, the sentiment fits Williamsís character and tastes. Almost exactly a year earlier, a celebrated New Yorker profile had summarized it in the pieceís subtitle: " A singerís love affair with loss. " Written by Granta founder and fellow Louisiana native Bill Buford, it showed how Williamsís stormy temperament ó as rebellious as Ramoneís music ó and her obsession with Southern culture ó especially raw blues like those that Hooker took north to Detroit ó had been nurtured by a lifetimeís proximity to death and deprivation.
True, the history of her personal loss has often been documented, but never so thoroughly and movingly as in Bufordís piece. His profile is pitted with so many harrowing stories and explanations of the songs they inspired, itís no wonder Williams has released so few albums over her lengthy career. A larger output would imply an abundance of loss too great for any mortal to bear.
But as Buford also shows, Southern culture is overripe with 100-plus years of such lamentation. And for most listeners, whether they know it or not, itís that culture that warms the blood in Williamsís music, not her private problems. The title track from 1998ís Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), for example, captures Lucindaís childhood years, during which her dad, the poet Miller Williams, dragged his family from one underpaid teaching post to another as his marriage slipped apart. When the distinguished elder Williams first heard the song, he sought out his daughter to apologize. But in the context of her art, that story remains a private one. What moves us is its warm folk-rock melody, loping on an easy beat animated by the interplay of mandolin and electric guitar, and the way the lyrics ripple off all that with a succession of spare, concrete images ( " a set of keys and a dusty suitcase " ). Itís hardly Gone with the Wind or Absalom, Absalom, yet like those Southern touchstones, it asserts a cultural heritage with particular sounds and details that are made all the more precious by the sense of their immutable passage into history, into memory. The song shows how Williams is obsessed with capturing the pure essence of her subjects because she knows sheís inevitably relinquishing that essence. This gives her notorious obsessive perfectionism a justification thatís bigger than her ego, and it gives us another reason to be thankful that sheís released so few songs over the years ó they just couldnít be as good otherwise.
But thatís not how Lucinda sees it. In fact, her 2001 rebuttal was titled ó wouldnít you know it? óEssence (Lost Highway). Released a year after Bufordís article (and a few weeks before the Cleveland concert), it quietly reasserted what Williams has often claimed, that her scant output had been due to the indifference of a corrupt and exploitative recording industry, an indifference that she finally conquered with the success of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). Yet Essence alluded mostly to the abstract interior life of the artist, not the concrete world she had so perfectly set down before. Whatís more, because her music was as spare and simple as always, her lyrics often slipped into clichés or Southern kitsch, and her arrangements and singing settled into the slick flatness that dooms so much singer-songwriter product.
But as the Cleveland concert showed, there was also something else going on in Essence. Acknowledging a false start on " Right in Time, " Williams snapped, " I fucked up. According to the press, Iím really fucked up. " Bufordís profile had made a point of underlining her hyper-professionalism on stage; given the trauma she goes through in the writing process, he noted, itís important for her to perform with " a fanatical sense of self-government; and thatís what her face conveys then: discipline, containment, control. " Yet her Cleveland show was the loosest Iíd seen among the four or five times Iíd caught her over the course of a decade, and I wasnít the only one to notice. " It was disgraceful, " my barber said a few days later. " A professional musician should never appear like that, drunk or stoned or whatever she was. "
As far as I could tell, " whatever she was " was Lucinda Williams, and the material from Essence benefitted from her new looseness, not because it finally rocked but because the new looseness cracked open the tunes. We learned how raw some of the songs really are, especially the title track, which plunges into the love-as-addiction metaphor with unusual candor: " Shoot your love into my vein . . . Come find me and help me get fucked up. "
And now, with the release of the new World Without Tears (Lost Highway), Williams has let herself fuck up more than ever, and the candor is a revelation and a release. The disc starts off as quiet as Essence, ambling through a slow, hum-by-the-numbers blues that makes possible a rare explicitness about her public life. " Iíve been trying to enjoy the fruits of my labor, " she sings, " Take the glory any day over the fame. " The most startling thing about the track, however, is the vocal ó burred with weariness (Williams turned 50 this January) but also slack-jawed, slurring the consonants as if she were genuinely stoned, an affectation far more common among male classic rockers than among white female blues babies.
From there, the album slowly accrues power, as if the singer were inviting us in as she wipes the sleep from her eyes. She starts unburdening herself after pouring both herself and us a tall one ó and then another, and another. By the third track, the lovely, folksy " Ventura, " it becomes clear that Williams can still write instantly winning tunes. But most of the album actually rests on readymade forms, including the much-discussed " rap " on one of the chanciest cuts, " American Dream. " In fact, it would be more accurate to call it a talking blues, or a Beat recitation. Like the rest of the album, itís still steeped in the traditions that have always inspired Williams, but also like the other songs, it bends traditionalism farther than she ever has before.
Almost any cut could serve as an example. A few, like " These Three Days, " still seek to balance their lovelorn desperation with an assured musical grace. But " Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings " matches the ballsy excess of its title with a Stones-like fervor (and a tune worthy of Exile on Main Street). " Atonement " could be her tribute to John Lee Hooker; it justifies, with its pounding, unkempt 12-bar stomp, the doomy Biblical quotations that have undone her in the past. And " Minneapolis, " which at first seems like another slice of classic Lucinda, is actually a darker tale than she has ever set in the first person. In sweetly passive folk-country cadences, she sings of a womanís rape at the hands of a lover, and about how she canít stop waiting for his return while also wishing that sheíd never seen his face.
In part this achievement is due to a lot of external variables going just right. Together with new co-producer Mark Howard, Williams decided to record the songs as live as possible, working in an old mansion in her new home of Los Angeles with only her current road band providing back-up. But it also seems that this valedictorian of the last class of classic rockers may be looking to the example set by one of the few classic rockers who was never bound by merit-scholar expectations: Neil Young (heís even mentioned once). Heroin addiction and a desultory sense of failure define World Without Tears the way they did Youngís pre-punk touchstone, Tonightís the Night; yet it rolls and creaks with as much natural beauty as his great string of folk-rock albums. And like Young, Williams doesnít worry about the personal ticks and tropes that she usually tries to master in her songs. She gets maudlin and pointedly political; she works her habit of repeating a line until it goes numb, perhaps because the lines bear simple, undeniable truths worth repeating at this strange and horrible historical juncture, and none more than the key phrase from " American Dream: " " Everything is wrong. "
None of this makes World Without Tears her best album ó itís hard to imagine Williams or anyone else fashioning an imperfect product more affecting than the perfection of Car Wheels. Sometimes her excesses do get the better of her. But more often than not, they get the better of us. She hasnít finally escaped the South, just internalized it into music that now fully expresses the turmoil she knows she will never fully control.