Like most people, I imagine, my introduction to Lucinda Williams came via her breakthrough 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As a long-time Cowboy Junkies fan the alt.country associations were always going to be enough to draw me in, although Williams was clearly a rawer, tougher proposition than the Junkies ever were. Nevertheless Car Wheels was to become one of my favourite albums of the 1990s, overflowing as it was with winning melodies, heartfelt lyrics, thrilling flights of guitar and the sultry drawl of Williams’ voice.
Doubling back, I swiftly picked up her self-titled 1988 album and 1992’s Sweet Old World, finding in both of them evidence of a rich, deeply rewarding talent. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I had never visited the American South of which Williams sang, I was entranced by her vivid, Carveresque descriptions of those places, the people who passed through them, their losses and gains and the turns they took. What really sealed the deal, though, was the way that these chronicles were given such gorgeously varied musical expression. An intoxicating blend of fragile ballads, raucous rockers and gritty blues episodes, Williams’ music seemed to embody the hurt, broken and undaunted attitudes that dwelt within her songs.
Williams was a perfectionist back then, which accounts in part for the six-year gap between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As is by now fairly well known, the first version of Car Wheels, recorded with her long-time producer Gurf Morlix, was trashed in favour of a completely re-recorded version with Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan at the controls. I have a copy of the Morlix version, and the difference is striking; it’s clearly of a piece with Sweet Old World, laced with the same hesitancy that pervades that record and makes it the least essential of Williams’ early albums. The Bittan version is a different beast entirely, and proves Williams’ instincts true: it has a radio-friendly punch and immediacy largely absent from the original. It was a trend continued on Williams’ next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, both of which contain some of her greatest songs.
I’ve only seen Lucinda Williams live once, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003. I can’t remember much about that show, to be honest. I would have seen her again in 2005, since I had tickets to see her at Shepherd’s Bush, but her entire European tour that year was postponed until the following year. By the time the rescheduled tour rolled around to London in November 2006, I had moved to Vienna and thus missed the rescheduled date. Of course, that was the night Bruce Springsteen joined her onstage for the encore, and the fact that I wasn’t there has rankled with me ever since. (Still, at least Williams rescheduled the tour. I still haven’t forgiven The Hold Steady for not rescheduling their entire 2008 European tour, thereby robbing me of my one and only opportunity to see them.)
If Williams’ early records represented a thoroughly modern take on Gram Parsons’ vision of Cosmic American Music, it’s been frustrating to me, as a long-time fan, to see her direction heading stubbornly earthward on every album since 2007’s patchy West (which did, however, contain in “What If” perhaps her most sublime song ever). The run from 2008’s dire Little Honey to 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20 has seen Williams progressively shed her country influences in favour of a blunt, rabble-rousing style that relies heavily on awkwardly confessional lyrics (“Oh, my little honey bee/I’m so glad you stung me/Now I’ve got your honey/All over my tummy” – yeah, thanks Lu) and uninspired rock workouts.
The other problem, unfortunately, is the ageing of Williams’ singing voice. On her early albums that sultry drawl was tempered with a sweetness and lightness of tone, but that has gradually disappeared and now it’s all drawl, compounded by an unpleasant slurring of the words that strips the songs of whatever communicative impulse they may once have possessed. This Sweet Old World, an entirely unnecessary 2017 re-recording of Sweet Old World, is unlistenable for this reason.
Which brings me to the reason why I’m writing this article, Lucinda Williams’ new album Good Souls Better Angels. I really wanted to like this album, but it’s an ugly slog for the most part, devoid of the shade and nuance that made Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road so essential. The apocalyptic anti-Trump tirade “Man Without A Soul” is an early highlight, with scorching guitar courtesy of Stuart Mathis, but Williams soon lapses into routine and cliché. “Big Black Train” is a dull ballad built around stock lyrical tropes, “Wakin’ Up” a rote evisceration of an abusive relationship and “Big Rotator” (there’s an awful lot of bigness here) a pedestrian rocker crippled by squally guitar and lumbering drums. By the time the limp “Good Souls” comes along to round off the album, I’m exhausted. Lucinda Williams has comprehensively lost her way, but I’ll always have Car Wheels on a Gravel Road to remind me of what an outstanding talent she once was.