Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears
Apr 26, 2003
WORLD WITHOUT TEARS, Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway)
Don’t believe the title of this album. There are many tears in Lucinda Williams’s world, along with blood, vomit and other bodily fluids. If you thought Essence - Lucinda Williams’ excellent album from 2001 - was the last word in loss, lust, obsession and hopeless abandonment, listen again. Williams only has a handful of themes but these have been fuelling her songwriting for more than twenty years and the tank isn’t empty yet.
Not that World Without Tears is quite like any album Williams has made before. For one thing, it introduces a brand new band, an economical trio headed by Los Angeles guitar ace Doug Pettibone, whose raw, angular playing contrasts with the rounded edges of Essence. The whole disc has the feel of a band in a rehearsal room, playing songs they haven’t known long enough to get glib with. The slow ones (which, as ever, form the majority) have never felt so fragile; listen to the way Pettibone’s guitar breathes its tentative, tremulous part in “Fruits Of My Labour”.
And the rockers have never been harder; check the ferocious wah-wah guitar in “Atonement”, the Pearl Jam power-chording in the aptly titled “Real Live Bleeding Fingers”, or the solo in “Righteously” that comes straight after the line: “Be my lover/don’t play no game/just play me John Coltrane”. Pettibone’s sheets of sound may be more Hendrix than Coltrane, still he makes the most of Lucinda’s lascivious invitation.
If the themes are Williams’s perennials, she has never pushed them to such extremes. “Ventura” is a song we have almost heard before; the lovelorn singer can’t get her mind off the guy, mopes about the house taking a kind of numb refuge in domestic minutiae (“pour some soup/get a spoon/stir it up real good”) The character is obsessed, suffering, sexually addicted. Yet we are inevitably shocked when she leans over the toilet bowl like a junkie or bulimic to “throw up my confessions”. If this image poisons an essentially pretty song, that’s precisely Williams’s intent. Others can write the pretty songs, she seems to say; I’ll write the ones that make you see something you’re not sure you wanted to. Repeatedly these songs lure you with promises of beauty, only to push ugly pictures in your face.
Sometimes you wonder if there is something kamikaze-like about the way Williams subverts her proven ability to pen a popular song. Nashville belles like Patty Loveless and Mary Chapin-Carpenter have struck gold covering Williams in the past, but they would have to be brave to approach any of this newer material. “Did you only love me for those three days? Did you love me forever for those three days?” goes the insistent refrain of “Those Three Days”, with a melody so heart-melting it would be a guaranteed chart-topper. That is, if it wasn’t for those verses; creepy images of scorpions beneath the skin and tongues under dresses, culminating in the declaration that will finally preclude the song from any mainstream airplay: “I have been so fucking alone!”
Naturally there’s at least one dead lover, though you have to listen carefully to “Over Time” (which competes with “Those Three Days” as the album’s most perfect song) for the single line that tells you the subject hasn’t just left the girl, he’s left the building.
Another favourite Williams character returns; the boy who never got enough love. And Lucinda the softie is still making excuses for him in “Sweet Side”, the first of a pair of songs for which she adopts a spoken drawl that will be heard as rap but is really closer to talking blues.
Also in evidence is her fascination with southern religious ritual, specifically in “Atonement” where she mimics the Pentecostal rantings of a snake-handler, taking Essence’s “Get Right With God” to another level. Much has been made of Williams’s southernness, and southern signposts are rife here, yet it is not far from the goth-boogie fantasies PJ Harvey used to conjure from the West Country. Don’t underestimate Williams’s sense of theatre.
Similarly, the voices in “American Dream” are fictitious, or at least composites. The song is a series of vignettes, like monologues from some Studs Terkel oral history, each verse ending in the blank denouncement “everything is wrong”.
The more vividly bleak her songs, the more intense her performances. And while it’s hard to imagine that anyone, even Williams, permanently dwells in the world depicted in these songs, it is place she feels compelled to visit as a songwriter, again and again. The darker the landscape, the more easily it seems to come. For an artist who has experienced long dry spells, twice taking six years between records, Williams in her 50th year is at last on a roll, World Without Tears arriving a mere eighteen months after Essence.
As a listener, there’s something inexplicably comforting in such a miserable album. Blue Lu herself comes close to articulating this paradox is in the title track, in which she sings:
If we lived in a world without tears
How would misery know which back door to walk through?
How would trouble know which mind to live inside of?
How would sorrow find a home?
Worse than that, if we lived in a world without tears, where would we find any Lucinda Williams records?