Thursday, June 19, 2003
World Without Tears
When Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on A Gravel Road burst onto the charts in 1998, the critics fell all over themselves discovering someone who had been making music for 20 years. A marked departure from the straightforward country rock of her last album, Sweet Old World, Car Wheels was tough, tender, stubborn and addictive. It was like Williams had bottled up all the rebelliousness of the South and uncorked it at a very loud party at her house where the guests were all in tank tops and smoking Marlboro Reds. The album captured a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Then came 2001's Essence, a moody, sophisticated CD steeped in melancholy and the throb of pain.
So when she released World Without Tears this spring, Lucindaheads wondered whether it would take them back to the sunny afternoons of Car Wheels on A Gravel Road or lead them through the gothic garden that was Essence. The simple answer is B, with one bittersweet difference: Lucinda Williams is no longer young, and on this album it is beginning to show.
Hers have always been the complexities of a difficult, temperamental woman who could be petulant and mean but always took the hit from love's slings and arrows in the softest part of her belly. So when she sings "Did you only want me for those three days? Did you only need me for those three days? Did you love me forever just for those three days?" and her voice turns ragged with the slow waver that age brings, it's not hard to imagine what's making her feel the years. Like its predecessor, World Without Tears is heavy on religious imagery, brutality and grinding depression.
It is also ripe with ballads heartbreaking in their loveliness. The melancholy "Ventura," with its longing slide guitar and reverb, is one of the prettiest songs Williams has ever recorded. She's also resurrected a cast of characters: the wounded invisible of society's underclass. "Sweet Side" and "American Dream" bypass Williams' preoccupation with her own grueling love life and reveal an unexpected trove of compassion for the ones who've got it really bad.
To the Lucinda connoisseur, this album takes strains of those that came before and twines them together into something familiar but richer, more mature. It's like she married the complex poetry of the last album to the indomitable musical spirit of the earlier ones. Somehow she's done this with pared-down instrumentation. The result is a baker's dozen of songs that lilt, groove, rock and just plain work--even if they're not what everyone was expecting and it makes people pissed off and a little sad.
--Traci Rae Hukill