There's nothing harder than watching an incredibly talented singer and songwriter struggle to find her footing. But that's exactly what listening to Lucinda Williams' latest release World Without Tears (Lost Highway) is like. One of those lucky artists to have been embraced by both the indie rock and the alt country listeners, Williams got her start in the 1970s when she recorded two albums of folk material for the Smithsonian Museum's Folkways label. She enjoyed modest success until 1998, when her watershed album Car Wheels on a Country Road helped redefine what "Americana" music was all about.
Williams regularly pays homage to country's roots, with a nod to both heartbreak and Hank. The album opens with the gorgeous slow-dance shuffle of "Fruits of My Labor," the kind of twangy, torchy number that Hank Williams once did so well. In similar fashion, "Over Time" could just as easily be coming from some dusty tabletop jukebox in some weeded-over highway diner.
She shines in some of her more contemporary tunes, including the sex-charged "Righteously," "Those Three Days" and "Minneapolis." She reportedly wrote the album in the wake of a harrowing breakup and channeled the jagged edges of her disbelief and emotional turmoil into poetic, evocative songs about what happens when the torrid kissing stops and the lover vanishes. These songs are really quite good.
Other songs on this album, however, are really quite bad. Williams gets into trouble when she's trying to experiment. Case in point? The god-awful and supposedly Dylan-esque "Sweet Side." If it's Dylan she's trying to do here, she's not pulling it off. Williams' nicotine-stained voice can be grating even under the best of circumstances, but on "Sweet Side" she's positively feral and yowly. Also, she's rapping. Right on its heels is "Atonement," which I can only describe as "stripper music meets Roseanne Barr yelling at her kids." Luckily, they're right next to each other on the CD and can be conveniently dispatched with two mere flicks of the forward button.
Those unfortunate songs and one or two others aside, Williams' true strength lies in her lyrics, which are almost always haunting, poetic and true. If Williams could stick to this and ignore the siren call of mimickry (in addition to Dylan, she attempts a sort of bland Sheryl Crow approachability on a few songs), she could put out a truly astonishing album.