Lucinda Williams sings about addiction — to love, sex, religion, drugs, danger, and memory — in songs riddled with an undeniable, compelling poetry. If her music is any reflection of her life, hers has been a hard one. That she lays it all bare for the world to see and hear is a rare and terrifying gift that millions of people cannot help tearing open, again and again.
Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the daughter of a poetry professor, and when she drawls the words “Lake Charles” in her songs, you can hear that it’s some kind of home. Actually, lots of places sound like home in Williams’s songs — the kind of home you fought to get away from and then spent your life trying to get back to. I first fell into her music twelve years ago when a friend gave me Sweet Old World — twelve songs so pungent they made me dizzy. The album careens from glorious exuberance (“Six Blocks Away”) to sweetly, simply stated adoration (“Something about What Happens When We Talk”) to rocking lust (“Hot Blood”).
The fulcrum of the album, for me, has always been “Pineola” — a matter-of-fact description of family and friends gathering after a young man’s suicide. As many times as I’ve heard it, I have never been able to figure out how those words, that voice, and that spare instrumentation combine to build such a powerful sense of place and loss.
It took six years for the next album to arrive. The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth article about Williams’s legendary perfectionism and her struggle to finish the record. But when Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out, it all made sense; it’s an astounding work that won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The title song is a remarkable collection of rural visual images — old cars, screen doors, a child who’s just finished crying — set to a funky, timeless groove. She also sings about graffiti on barroom walls (“2 Kool 2 Be 4-Forgotten”), and the record’s one-chord rant, “Joy,” has just been covered by Detroit R&B artist Bettye LaVette.
In concert, Williams is an arresting performer. I last saw her at the Michigan Theater, just a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Her wounded audience looked to her for something that she delivered, sadly but powerfully. She didn’t rant or rail; she just acknowledged the shared devastation and poured out song after song.
Since Car Wheels there’ve been two more studio albums, Essence and World without Tears, and a live album, Live @ the Fillmore. In each one, Williams turns her face to the sun — or maybe the moon, or a flaring match — at a slightly different angle. We’re lucky to get each new refraction.
Lucinda Williams returns to the Michigan Theater on Sunday, October 2.
[Review published October 2005]