The magic of Lucinda Williams’ early music lay in her soothing vocals and lyrics that captured wide-eyed innocence and a resilient belief in the transcendent power of love. “Everything we have is fresh and new / I will open myself up to you” she sang on 1988’s “Like A Rose”, capturing a relentless optimism and a young heart still able to fully and quickly heal from heartbreak.
As Williams got older, she became increasingly hardened by the world’s many injustices, while at the same time, her characteristically soothing voice began transforming into something more gravelly and world-weary. 2003’s World Without Tears captures Lucinda Williams mid-transition; as the bruised innocence of her self-titled LP and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road transforms into something altogether darker.
Even when confronting the most morbid elements of existence, Williams historically had still clung to moments of life-sustaining hope and optimism. 1992’s “Sweet Old World” is ostensibly about the suicide of a friend, but it’s just as much about all the reasons to keep living (“A sweet and tender kiss”, “Somebody so warm / Cradled in your arms”). On World Without Tears, Williams’ belief in the world’s beauty begins to wear thin; at one point describing herself as strangled with sin and filled with poison.
“American Dream” is Lucinda Williams’ answer to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. With her signature Louisiana drawl and a half-spoken word delivery, Williams lists off a litany of societal wrongs; PTSD, opioid abuse, homelessness, Native American displacement, coal-mining-induced cancer. In between listing off these injustices, she interjects with cries of “everything is wrong”. These would be shocking words to hear from any artist, but it’s truly startling to hear it from the reliably resilient Williams.
While Williams best works largely remain those in which she finds light at the end of every tunnel, there’s something refreshing about her despondency here, something radical about her refusal to find silver linings in the face of out-right immoralities.
Even when World Without Tears moves away from darker themes, it remains brasher and heavier than Williams’ past works. The fantastic “Righteously” covers similar ground to Car Wheel’s “Right In Time” – both embracing female sexuality and desire. But while the latter was an easy on the ears, classic Americana number that lent largely on euphemisms, “Righteously” is a bluesy, ballsy number that gets right to the heart of the matter (“Get excited and bite my neck / Get me all worked up like that”).
Despite being an altogether darker album than Williams previous work, there are still moments of classic Lucinda scattered across World Without Tears’ 60 minutes. “Fruits of My Labor” – easily Williams most recognisable song – finds the songwriter doing what she does best; balancing hope and despair on a delicate knife’s edge. The song begins with Williams closing her velvet curtains to keep the “bright and unforgiving light” out, while mournfully reflecting on the lost moments of a past love. Later, however, she puts her “pedal to the metal” and embarks boldly on a new life – triumphantly declaring “I finally did it, baby!” As Bon Iver – who drew inspiration from the song to create “Hinnom, TX” – noted, here Williams finds that the “end of something…is actually the beginning of her life”. It’s a sentiment that echoes one of Maya Angelou’s most famous quotes: “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman”. As the daughter of a poet, it’s a quote she’s probably familiar with, and as a woman whose had to navigate the male-dominated music industry, it’s a sentiment she surely understands.
Two tracks in particular here, hark back to older Lucinda classics. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” – written as a tribute to Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg – is “Drunken Angel”s spiritual cousin; an adoring ode to a perpetually troubled soul. But while “Drunken Angel” was a tender dedication to a deceased peer, “Bleeding Fingers” is a tougher, bruising number about someone who’s still with us, but whose life risks veering off the rails. It radiates the sort of fatigued concern that anyone who’s ever cared about someone perpetually troubled and restless will instantly recognize.
“Minneapolis”, meanwhile, finds Williams in a mode – mournful balladeering – that has reliably led her to breath-taking results. Like Car Wheel’s “Greenville” it finds Williams longing for infinite distance; cries of “go back to Greenville” here replaced with a solemn realization: “I wish I’d never seen your face or heard your voice”. Just a few tracks earlier on “Overtime”, Williams began the painful process of piecing herself back together again, recognising that “I’ll get over you over time”. But while time heals all wounds, “Minneapolis” is a song for those moments spent waiting for that to happen; where pain threatens to consume you wholly. “Open up this wound again, let my blood flow red and thin”, Williams sings in the final verse, a validation of the messiness of life; of grieving, of falling apart and becoming whole and falling apart again. Has any line ever better encapsulated her music’s very essence?
Best Tracks: “Minneapolis”, “Those Three Days”, “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings”, “Ventura”, “Righteously”, “Fruits Of My Labor”