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Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20

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Lucinda Williams: <i>The Ghosts of Highway 20</i>

In the late ‘80s, Lucinda Williams emerged as the patron saint of busted love and broken dreams. Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World established her as a writer not afraid of the pain. Honoring her father, poet Miller Williams, she’s put the scalpel to the bone with West, Blessed, World Without Tears, Essence, her breakthrough Car Wheels on A Gravel Road—and last year’s Americana Album of the Year, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.

At 63, Williams has seen enough life to know more than the brutal ache of love-gone-wrong’s agonies. Having flirted with death, loss and mourning with Car Wheels’ “Drunken Angel” and West’s “Mama You Sweet” and “Fancy Funeral,” mortality emerges as a matured theme on Ghosts.

The starkness reflects not just an austerity to allow her kerosene-and-rusted-barbed-wire moan own the tableau, it reinforces the hollowness of life’s end. Guitarist Bill Frissell’s atmospheric tone and Greg Leisz’s earthier, buzzier sound create a skeleton for the 14 songs, more prayers and mantras for the knowing years of facing life’s end.

With “If My Love Could Kill,” she rages at the Alzheimer’s that took her father last January, while the gentle “Death Came” is a hushed ebb ’n’ flow release of hand drum and barest guitar washing over the ultimate denouement. “Doors of Heaven,” with its cheeky guitar part and hummed opening, suggests death is not merely surrender, but a destination to crave.

And that reveals the larger trope of Ghosts. What could be a sad or ruminative record is more a triumphant road reflection. From the title, evoking the Southern highway from Florida to Louisiana Williams has traveled since she was a small girl, these songs are journeys literal and metaphorical.

“I Know All About It” knowingly watches an indulgent artist wallow in their own pain, while “Can’t Close The Door on Love” suggests the search for happily ever after is fruitful if you continue seeking. Even Springsteen’s “Factory” embraces the blue-collar life cycle of “endure but don’t succumb to assembly-line tedium,” letting her voice push and crack with the emphasis of a blues singer scraping the song’s insides out.

Williams willingness to explore is definitive. Songs take their time unfolding, allowing the emotions to rise—letting the final songs deliver crowning glory. The Hank Williams-esque “If There’s A Heaven” evokes old hymns, while a humid reworking of the Staple Singers’ “Faith & Grace” slinks slow to the culminating mantra “Get right with God” that builds to explosion.

Adult work, Ghosts hits the gut, the soul and the grey matter.

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