World Without Tears Label: Lost Highway Records
When alt-country vixen Lucinda Williams snarls, “Flirt with me, don’t keep hurtin’ me, you don’t cause me pain. Be my lover don’t play no game, just play me John Coltrane,” throughout the burning second track “Righteously” of her new record, World Without Tears, she does it with hooks firmly implanted. Originally a noted songwriter for others in the genre (Patty Loveless and Mary Chapin Carpenter, to name a couple), Williams knows heartbreak and pain. Or at least she has a knack for expressing it lyrically better than anyone. But there’s a good reason why she’s recording her own songs these days -- the lass can sing and play!
I mean, if 1998’s dazzling Car Wheels on a Gravel Road wasn’t proof enough, Williams has returned a few albums later with a stockpile of road-tested romps and resolute tales about love-gone-wrong and the busted heart left behind. The pulverizing “Bleeding Fingers” boasts a Keith Richards-like axe part that would fit on most any Steve Earle album over the past decade. It’s hard to tell after a few listens whether this song deals with her lover, her addictions, or a hint of both. “Shattered nerves, itchy skin, dirty words and heroin,” Williams scowls over top of blistering guitar riffs. But when she wants to, she can contain her testosterone, too. “Ventura” and the exquisite “Those Three Days” are both evidence of her tender but tough side, haunting barroom ballads that keep the city of Nashville alive and kicking.
The only misstep on this new venture comes when Williams tries too hard to reinvent her own wheel. A sloppy ode to Muddy Waters (“Atonement”) is hard to get through, as is the spoken word “American Dream.” In both cases she manages to rebound and keep the record’s vibe flowing. “Sweet Side” is delectable, sort of a wispy hip-hop number that resources quirky but poignant lyrics like, “Hands that would feed you when you were two are the same that would beat you black and blue.”
So it’s not easy to say whether these aching themes are first-hand life accounts or mere speculation. Either way, Lucinda Williams has a fearless attraction and unwavering delivery, borrowed from most comparably Neil Young, that make her hard to ignore. Even when her stories don’t apply, I find my mind wondering, like reading a good book or watching a gripping movie. She succeeds by painting so many unique portraits through her haunting harmonies that you’re bound to be drawn to a few.