By Mark Guarino
Lucinda Williams built a body of work on her difficulties with joy: losing joy, searching for joy, getting it back. After almost two decades of making agonizingly soulful albums, a Grammy coronation in 1998 thrust her in the spotlight, switching her gears from cult hero to queen of pain for the Starbucks set.
Her newest album, “World Without Tears” (Lost Highway), is her second since the Grammy hoopla and her seventh overall. There is no less heartache than any of her other albums, in fact the sweetness in Williams’s hallmark sweet old world has evaporated entirely. Exposing all that suffering with hardly a filter, these songs are not for the mild. It’s the only album in stores today that equates vomiting into a toilet bowl with spiritual cleansing.
By now, the torment has gotten a little too familiar. On “Ventura,” there’s the building despair, the car ride for escape, the music on the tape deck (Neil Young) and the gorgeous chorus about giving in (“I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love”).
She’s written this song time and again. The difference on “World” is it’s not the song that matters most, it’s the sound. Last year Williams fled Nashville for L.A. and left the studio perfection of Music Row behind. These 13 songs were all recorded entirely live in a living room. Four musicians patching together a ballad about abandonment on the spot couldn’t be more perfect, the pressure cooker environment bottling the tension. Guitarist Doug Pettibone’s echo-soaked guitar and Williams’s cat-scratched drawl light a slow burning sexuality that seeps through.
Having recently turned 50, Williams deserves credit for trying new things. On a few songs she slips into a funkier groove and talk-sings her way through, at times firing off lines with the seething indignation of Bob Dylan (“Sweet Side”) and other times attempting, but lacking, the hip-hop cool of Mary J. Blige (“Righteously”). Rattling off the ills of homelessness, heroin addiction and Native American displacement (“American Dream”) fails to have the understated eloquence she’s achieved in the past.
Many of these new songs are heavier rockers (she reportedly became a recent fan of Paul Westerberg), but aside from “Real Life Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” the rest of the songs end up standard gutbucket blues jams.
Williams became a songwriting divinity for her divine way of making her deep-rooted distress so universal. Half this album beautifully wounds, but more often than not, it makes the same scar.