Throw on Lucinda Williams’ new album, Little Honey, and the first thing you hear is the disheveled jumble of a false start. As her band, Buick 6, anxiously waits to kick into the debauched swagger that the opening song is built upon, they all simultaneously jump the gun. Guitars and drums race off in different directions, the timing is all off, and the whole thing collapses under its own anticipation. Realizing their error, they all stop, collect themselves, and launch back into the song, titled “Real Love”. This time Buick 6 get it right, and you realize that what initially sounded like a mess is a glorious mess, the kind the Replacements or the Stones might drunkenly stumble into before laying down a bad-ass groove.
And that, to be sure, is a great thing. When Williams lets loose and lets it rock, it’s a glorious, glorious thing. Think, for example, of “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” from World Without Tears, a song that would sound perfectly at home on Exile on Main Street. The same holds true for “Real Love”, what with its 4/4 beat, rusted twang, and downright nasty riffage? Yeah, it’s nice. Thirty seconds into Williams’ new album, everything feels right with the universe –- and then she opens her mouth. “I found the love I’ve been looking for,” she sings, “It’s a real love.”
For longtime fans of Williams, this is no doubt good news, but no less worrying. Country music doesn’t exactly lend itself to celebrations of happiness, and that’s its appeal. It’s music for the miserable, for those who had it all for just a moment and then squandered it all away, and Lucinda Williams, damn it, is supposed to be the patron saint of broken hearts. Who else has ever crafted lines so genius as “Did you love me forever / Just for those three days?” Yes, to hear that Lucinda has found love is just a bit unsettling for those who have depended on her tales of loneliness and regret to survive, well, loneliness and regret.
Thankfully, Williams doesn’t let the corniness that often accompanies falling in love seep into her music, and she accomplishes this by letting the music create the mood of the songs rather than the lyrics. If her past albums mixed slow, introspective tracks with the occasional up-tempo rock track, so does Little Honey. Indeed, many of the slow tracks sound like those same tales of loneliness, and it takes a close listen to the lyrics to realize that the songs reveal a happy Williams.
“The Knowing”, for example, is about finally realizing the liberation of being in love, but it’s all slow, bluesy guitar lines and swelling organ. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Booker T. and the M.G.s were backing Williams. The same holds true for “Tears of Joy”, which features some downright sexy guitar work from Doug Pettibone. If ever a tune were made for slow dancing in the corner of a dive, this is it. Sultry and slithery, it’s one of the finer moments of the album.
And then there are those rock songs, the ones we don’t see as much from Williams. Some of them, such as “Real Love”, are instantly likeable, while others take a few listens to fall under their spell. “Honey Bee” is not a remake of the Tom Petty classic, but it’s just as primal and raunchy. Upon first listen, it’s a head-scratcher, with Williams screaming over clanging guitar. When Pettibone launches into his scorching solos, though, you’re won over. Likewise, “Little Rock Star” takes a while to get used to, but the repeated listens are ultimately rewarded. Featuring backing vocals from Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs and some downright psychedelic production, it’s proof that Williams is open to new ideas.
Unfortunately, however, Little Honey suffers from its share of missteps, which is a shame since Williams could have easily cut three tracks and still had enough songs to form a tighter, more consistent album. Oddly enough, the duet with Elvis Costello, “Jailhouse Tears”, should not have made the cut. Costello is brilliant in many different genres, but his effete, nasal, British whine has never made for convincing country. Yes, if you’re a hipster working backwards from indie rock to country, you might like Costello’s faux-twang, but the track is downright tedious. Lacking in both punch and locomotion, it also recycles every overused motif in country music, from breaking the law to being a drunk to being a “three-time loser”.
Where the album stumbles the most, though, is towards the end, and Williams would have done herself a favor to chop “Plan to Marry” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top” right off the end of the album. The former tries to accomplish too much thematically by first addressing the ills of the world and then turning its attention to marriage, eventually comparing lovers to soldiers. It’s a nice thought –- that the joy of marriage can somehow negate the effects of disease and war –- but it’s both sappy and naïve, especially in the context of a song that meanders without shape. As for “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, it’s to rock and roll what “Jailhouse Tears” is to country, a collection of clichés related to the genre. Here we have a highway, motels, people getting stoned… It’s third-rate Black Crowes, and an artist of Williams’ caliber should have sidestepped it altogether.
Ultimately, though, Little Honey only falters when compared to Williams’ own ridiculous standards. No other artist has so consistently delivered, and that’s largely because Williams normally takes a year or two (if not ten) between albums. Fortunately, her output has increased as she has learned to trust her instincts, and they usually lead her in the right direction. So while there are a few more missteps here than we’re used to seeing from our beloved Lucinda, for the most part, her music has survived that awful, awful curse of falling in love.