Wednesday, April 10, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1249: Lucinda Williams

For almost three years now I’ve been alternating random rolls out of albums that are “new to me” and albums I’ve known for years. I love hearing new music, but there’s also something pretty special about hearing a record for the 100th time and still feel it hit you right in the solar plexus. That’s the case with this next review.

Disc 1249 is… Sweet Old World
Artist: Lucinda Williams

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? Lucinda shows off her heart-worn, ragged beauty. Also, her arms.

How I Came to Know It: This was my first Lucinda Williams album. I bought it after I heard her sing a duet with Steve Earle on his 1996 album “I Feel Alright.” This was the first record that was available when I went searching for her stuff at the local music store.

How It Stacks Up:  Turns out I started out pretty well. I have 12 Lucinda Williams albums and this one comes in solid at #4.

Ratings:  4 stars but almost 5

“Sweet Old World” is 45 minutes of raw emotion, a journey through the twisted, shadowy alluring labyrinth that is Lucinda Williams’ mind.

Williams’ vocals are rich and bittersweet; a warbling confessional reciting the dreams and fears of the many rich characters she inherits. She defines vulnerable and there are times where you’d feel guilty about looking into her inmost heart, if only it weren’t so damned beautiful.

The record is full of longing and loss. Characters stand alone and pine across distances. Sometimes their goal is only six blocks away, and sometimes they are separated by death itself. I felt myself listing from side to side, caught in the uncertainty of the world, only to be drawn safely through by her siren’s call. If she makes you scrape dangerously on a few rocks on the way to harbor, that isn’t malice, it’s just her nature.

The arrangements are a beautiful mix of the blues and old school country, over which Williams lattices a vocal that holds both traditions simultaneously. There was a lot of excess ambient sound and production in the early nineties, but “Sweet Old World” steers clear of those pitfalls. Each instrument is deliberate, and well placed and Williams’ singing style allows for them to shine alongside her, rather than sit unnoticed in the background.

It helps that the record has some amazing musicianship on it. The electric guitars are handled jointly by Duane Jarvis and the fantastically named Gurf Morlix. Both play with big, bluesy notes that fill all the space that needs filling but no more. Williams has secured the organ playing services of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. As usual, Tench sprinkles magic on everything he touches in the same way Emmylou Harris selflessly knocks out a background vocal.

As I listened to “Sweet Old World” I kept having the urge to quote some of Lucinda Williams’ poetic brilliance. I’d hear the words and then flip through the CD liner notes (take that, downloaders) to find the perfect line. Every time I found the source of my inspiration it felt dead on the page. Without all that restrained glory of the players and Lucinda’s hurt-filled tones it felt two-dimensional.

This isn’t an indictment of the writing. On the contrary, this record tells stories and paints characters with equal grace. Rather, “Sweet Old World” is a reminder that to make a great record it requires all these disparate elements – words, theme, skill and heart – to come together and create a visceral experience every time you hear it.

The only song that isn’t an original is the final track, a cover of Nick Drake’s “Which Will.” The song is a masterpiece of walked-down chords, rainy days and the pensive wanderings of the mind. Drake’s original is a masterpiece, but once you hear Williams do this cover, it belongs to her.

“Sweet Old World” missed a 5-star grade by the narrowest of margins. There really isn’t anything wrong with this record, and the fact that it only lands 4th in my Lucinda Williams odyssey is just further testament to the overall brilliance of her body of work.

Best tracks: 9 of 12: Six Blocks Away, Something About What Happens When We Talk, Sweet Old World, Little Angel Little Brother, Pineola, Prove My Love, Sidewalks of the City, Which Will

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