It starts with a shivery vibrato guitar, straight off one of those ’60s New York soul ballads?Betty Harris’ “Cry To Me”, perhaps, or Garnett Mimms & The Enchanters’ “I’ll Take Good Care Of You”. A little while later it peels away into a bruising Neil and Crazy Horse blowout called “Real Live Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings”. Then it shrinks back into “Over Time”, a slow-shuffle four-in-the-morning ballad that could be second cousin to Sweet Old World’s “Little Angel, Little Brother”. (Why, incidentally, wasn’t that heartbreaker on the soundtrack to Ken Lonergan’s sublime movie You Can Count On Me?)
Where else does World Without Tears go? Easier to ask where it doesn’t. Cut more or less live in a ’20s mansion in downtown Los Angeles, it’s the most extraordinary smorgasbord of styles, moods, modes, a far more daring, jolting record than 2001’s Essence. Just when you’re ready to sink into the murky recess of the Lucinda Williams corner booth and drown in a flat beer she pulls another surprise out of the hat and you’re back on your feet hollering again.
Even more jolting than “Bleeding Fingers” is “Atonement”, an industrial blues monster that lurches and grinds like Tom Waits’ “Heartattack And Vine” or (more specifically) Captain Beefheart’s Blue Collar cameo “Hard Workin’ Man”. Ironically Bible-belting it may be, “Get Right With God” it ain’t. It must be the most brutal thing Williams has ever recorded.
“I’m really excited about this record because it’s different from anything I’ve done before,” Lu says in her Lost Highway press release. “Each song has a different flavour and reflects some of my influences. I think it shows a natural progression. Plus, it has some up-tempo stuff on it and I think it was time for me to do that.”
Let’s not overstate this: within the 13 tracks there’s still a generous dollop of diamond-cut country-soul moping. Lovers of Lucinda at her most chiselled and desolate are hardly going to be let down by the wintry Marianne Faithfull lament of “Minneapolis” or the baleful ache of “Ventura” and “Words Fell”. And let’s not forget, either, that Williams has on occasions rocked out with the best of ’em. Part Tammy Wynette, part Chrissie Hynde, part rock-chick Eudora Welty, Lady Lu is the closest thang we have to a distaff Steve Earle?or should that be the other way round?
But World Without Tears nonetheless emerges some way from the backwater bayou that birthed Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and Essence. There’s less small-town blues here, more grappling with the bigger picture of America today. A part of that is down to the inclusion towards the end of the album of a song called, unpromisingly, “American Dream”. Wearily rapped in the persona of a dispossessed Navajo Indian, over a glassy electric-piano-and-rimshot arrangement that’s equal parts Gil Scott-Heron and “Riders On The Storm”, it’s a withering deconstruction of Dubya Nation, a country in which “everything is wrong”, at least for the growing majority of have-nots.
No doubt “American Dream” will cause Williams to be pilloried as anti-patriotic by her warmongering compatriots and Universal will order the track to be dropped. Less a world without tears, methinks, than a country without dissident voices.
There’s rapping, too, on what for me is easily World Without Tears’ most moving track, “Sweet Side”. The song is just two strummed acoustic chords and a smear of Delta slide, but Lucinda’s heartrending address to a damaged lover, seeing the beaten boy in the emotionally crippled man, moved me to tears. “You had the blues ever since you were six/Your tennis shoes and your pick-up sticks…” If Eminem could get vulnerable enough to write one song as powerful as this I might forgive all the megalomaniacal belly-aching about the pressures of his own notoriety.
Another way of pointing up the difference between Essence and World… is to note that there’s less of the easy, greasy sensuality we heard on the earlier album: ain’t no “Are You Down” or “Steal Your Love” here, bub. Williams sounds alternately loveless or pushing her energies outwards: only second track “Righteously” consorts with the carnal, and even that comes with a lip-curl of reproach. (As another mark of the album’s sonic flavour, Doug Pettibone’s guitar breaks here are less ’70s country-rockin’ and more ’80s blues-metal?think Billy Gibbons circa Eliminator, or even, weirdly in places, the Sterling Morrison of Live 1969.)
There’s further reproach on “Those Three Days” (as in, “Did you only need me for…?”)?when Lu wails “And I feel so fucking alone”, it fucking stings. The album’s title (and penultimate) track is like one of those mid-’70s country-soul morality tales so beloved of Ry Cooder, complete with a gospelly, Bobby King/Terry Evans-style chorus. “People Talkin'”, a swipe at gossiping slanderers, kicks off like The Band’s “The Weight” but is the only really so-so offering on the record.
The really good news is that World Without Tears comes just two years after Essence, which in turn followed just three years after the Grammy-grabbing Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. The agonisingly protracted six-year birth of Car Wheels… would seem to be a thing of the past, meaning that we can expect at least a couple more masterpieces before the decade’s end.
There are still things that irritate about Lucinda Williams?the mannered slurring of some of her singing; the cold precision of certain songs; the preciousness about her Southernness, and about her own poetic origins. But World Without Tears indicates that this fiftysomething gal is brave enough to ruffle feathers and rock boats?to get off the Lost Highway and depart the sometimes overly-cosy country of Alt. As such, it’s worth every one o’ them broken strings and bleeding fingers.