Time Magazine recently named Lucinda Williams “America’s Greatest Songwriter”, and it’s not difficult to make a case for her deserving the title. The daughter of poet Miller Williams, she’s recorded six albums, generally to critical praise, won three Grammies, and her material has been widely covered, with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, and Tom Petty scoring hits with her songs.
Williams is known for being a perfectionist, which had led to difficult relationships with some producers and players over the years — an often-cited case in point would be the six years it took her to release 1998’s masterful Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But she’s fiercely independent, refusing to allow producers or labels to run her career. As she told cnn.com, “At the risk of being called ‘a perfectionist’ or ‘a difficult artist’ and all of the other labels they want to put on you, I’d rather have that than lose control”.
World without Tears, her seventh record and follow-up to 2001’s minimalist Essence, finds Williams working in a new environment. First, she’s recently turned 50 and left Nashville for the roots-rock scene of Los Angeles, where the album was recorded. Second, Williams co-produced with Mark Howard (U2’s All that You Can’t Leave Behind, Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind, and Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball) and worked with a new band (Doug Pettibone — guitar and harmonies; Jim Christie — drums and organ; Taras Prodaniuk — bass and harmonies). Over an eight-week period, they hammered out the songs, and the record was basically recorded live in the studio — this from an artist known for her near-fanatical remixing.
As Williams explained to Josh Jackson in a recent Paste Magazine interview, “At first, I was a little nervous about it. . . . I just figured I’d have to redo all my vocals anyway, or overdub them or do something like I’d always done before”. But in the end, Howard’s live-production philosophy worked: “I didn’t have to redo any of my vocals. They’re all what I call ‘scratch vocals’, live vocals, on every single song. I don’t know how that happened.” She adds, “But I guess miracles do happen.”
The end result is a visceral album, not only because of Williams’s voice and the live sound but also because of the album’s subject matter, which considers subjects such as isolation, failed relationships, depression, drug abuse, suicide, and child abuse as well as William’s frank articulation of her own sexuality. (So while in popular culture young women like Britney Spears and Xtina Aguilera fall back on racy videos, piercings, and Rolling Stone covers to express their sexuality, Lucinda gets it done better with some carefully chosen words. Take note, girls.)
World Without Tears is a complex, multifaceted album that musically highlights Williams’s continued blurring of musical genres and poetic lyrics. The end result is a song-cycle tied together lyrically and musically by her grounding in the blues. She has said that she considers herself to be a blues singer, which is particularly evident in the southern blues breathiness of her voice and the way in which it interacts with the instruments. Lucinda Williams has never been better.
In “People Talkin'”, Williams sings, “People . . . trying to tear us apart / Tryin’ to rip out my heart”, which articulates her strength as an artist: Her ability to express her suffering.
Simply put: There is agony in her voice.
Once again, lyrically, Williams continues to explore her own pain. Take, for example, the first track, “Fruits of My Labor”, where the space within the guitar notes’ vibrato echoes the singer’s voice as she addresses a former lover, concluding, “Take the glory any day over the fame” — a fitting conclusion from an artist whose career has embraced that philosophy. Of a similar vein are “Ventura”, a meticulous list of daily details (eating dinner, going out, taking a shower, throwing up) the singer recounts as she tries desperately to assert order into her life; “Overtime”, a repeated assurance that someday she’ll feel better; “Those Three Days”, a song that juxtaposes soothing music against visceral vocals in a plea to a lover; and “Minneapolis”, a terrifying acoustic cry that closes with the singer observing, almost dispassionately, “Open up this wound again / Let my blood flow red and thin / Into the glistening, into the whiteness / Into the snow of Minneapolis”.
But Williams also looks beyond herself to address the pain of others, most particularly a lover, a recurring character battling his own demons. So with “Righteously”, she urges him to act, to satisfy her physical needs; with the Stones-influenced “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings”, she addresses him as near royalty before comparing him to “Shattered nerves / Itchy skin / Dirty words / And heroin”; and in the Dylanesque talking-blues of “Sweet Side”, she explains that she knows his behavior is the result of child abuse, but she looks beyond that because she’s seen his “sweet side”. Consider these lines: “You’ve had the blues ever since you were six / Your little tennis shoes and your pick-up sticks”. Such insights permeate World without Tears.
Or there’s “American Dream”, a talking-blues litany of those who’ve been denied the “American Dream” (e.g., a Vietnam veteran, a miner, a homeless person, a Navajo Indian). “Everything is wrong,” Williams repeats relentlessly. And a highlight is “Atonement”, a tent revival with its Hendrix-influenced fuzzy guitar and dirty blues. “Come on, Come on!”, Williams exhorts, and it is difficult to deny her.
The title track is a bluesy rock song where Williams asks how could we live in a world without pain: “How would scars find skin / To etch themselves into / How would broken find the bones?” Indeed, it is suffering that ties us together, that creates the need to sing the blues and, ultimately, articulate the pain of everyone. The blues both express the sorrow of many and provide a basis for much of American popular music. Lucinda Williams’s blues could not be more apt.
With the spare arrangement of “Words Fell”, the final track, Williams appears to have arrived at a resolution. Her lover has articulated his own pain to her, and she embraces it: “Words fell / Like roses at our feet / When you let me see you cry / Your silent lips against my cheek.”
It is a moment of catharsis, both for the singer and for all of us.