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Lost Highway

Williams breaks it off with alt-country once and for all, and the music soars as she suffers

Lucinda Williams today is a different artist from the one whose disgracefully belated commercial breakthrough came with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998. That Lucinda had released four albums of her own songs on four labels in eighteen years -- all of which, back to 1980's girlish, strummed-acoustic Happy Woman Blues, favored concrete narrative and verse-chorus structures. This Lucinda has released three studio albums plus a redundant live double in six years, all of which tend toward metaphysical abstraction and open-ended incantation. But Williams has cited Bob Dylan's bone-simple Time Out of Mind as an inspiration for 2001's Essence, and even more than 2003's World Without Tears, West is in that mode.

Because Williams is never satisfied, she's brought in producer Hal Willner, a typically well-modulated change from Charlie Sexton, the Dylan guitarist who went for ambience with session players on Essence, and Mark Howard, the Dylan engineer who went for relaxation with her road band on World Without Tears. Beyond Marianne Faithfull's 1987 Strange Weather, Willner's prestige is based on theater pieces and multi-artist tributes to the likes of Weill and Monk, but his subtle arting up of Williams' roots-rock perfectionism will revise that profile. As on World Without Tears, the guitarist is Williams' own Doug Pettibone; as on Essence, the rhythm section is Dylan bassist Tony Garnier and drummer-to-the-stars Jim Keltner. But Willner has mixed in his own posse: jazz atmospherist Bill Frisell, former Tin Hat Trio keyboard whiz Bob Burger and violinist-not-fiddler Jenny Scheinman, whose dark tones lead Williams a big step further away from the blues, especially on "Unsuffer Me," which is intensified by Scheinman's string writing, and "Where Is My Love?" which is freshened by her accompaniment.

There's a catch, however. Borne away on Williams' luscious, cracked drawl, "Unsuffer Me" would work without Scheinman; tethered to the place-name shtick that should have breathed its last on Car Wheels, "Where Is My Love?" doesn't quite work with Scheinman. Car Wheels was Williams' third straight album without a duff song. Even when the melodies flattened out or the performance didn't peak, as will happen, lyrical texture and incident compensated. But since Essence, Williams has been aiming for meaningful songs that heighten generalized, conversational, unliterary language -- and writing them faster. And since Essence, her songcraft has slipped half a notch.

The opener, "Are You Alright?" is one of her greatest songs ever, and exemplifies how powerful the new method can be. Riding a deep, lazy groove and keyed to a title refrain Williams repeats twenty-two times, it employs the commonest words in the language -- all on the order of "Are you sleeping through the night?/Do you have someone to hold you tight?" -- to pound home how totally (and tenderly) you can miss your ex-lover. Or conceivably your mother after she's passed, as the more imagistic "Mama You're Sweet" reminds us. Many of West's tracks are very nearly in this class, including the pained "Unsuffer Me," the vituperative (and, remarkably for Williams, funny) "Come On," the obsessive avant-barnburner "Wrap My Head Around That," and the formal exception "Fancy Funeral," a detailed, practical-advice song Williams wrote after family pressure compelled her to plan and pay for her mom's -- which she ended up not attending.

But then there are the washouts. "I'm learning how to live/Without you in my life"? Or, later, "The mystery and splendor don't thrill me like before/And I can't feel my love anymore"? These aren't intrinsically disastrous lines, though "mystery and splendor" is pushing it; it's possible to imagine Trisha Yearwood or Nanci Griffith covering them. But in neither case does the music put the songs they're in across -- they're dull like nothing on Lucinda Williams or Sweet Old World. Even worse, unfortunately, are the mock metaphysics of "What If," which with its silly conditionals is more regrettable than her former low point, Essence's biblical "Broken Butterflies."

Williams remains a premier artist. But on another keeper here, she worries, "When my words are hiding between the lines/Then I'm afraid they won't hear me call." It must be said in so many words that does happen sometimes -- and that the music doesn't always bail her out.

Rolling Stone, Feb. 22, 2007