She's Got Her Joy Back
There are artists who believe it is necessary for them to suffer for their art. There are artists who believe it is necessary for us to suffer for their art. And then there's Lucinda Williams.
Though Williams may well be the flagship artist of this whole alt-country (whatever that is) anti-genre, she has also drawn more creative inspiration from highly publicized turmoil than anyone else. Before Car Wheels On A Gravel Road earned renown as her masterpiece, it was notorious as the album that took her six years, three producers, two record labels and two managers to complete, while costing her the allegiance of the backing band that had become all but synonymous with her music.
Its predecessor, Sweet Old World, had taken almost as tortuous a path. Williams, plainly a restless spirit, has changed home bases – a round-robin itinerary of Los Angeles, Austin and Nashville – almost as often as she has changed boyfriends. Stability hasn't been her strong suit.
As a music journalist, I'm not particularly interested in gossip or an artist's personal life, except as it affects the art. And if Williams has suffered for her art, her art has obviously reaped the benefits, because few artists have generated more power from raw, naked emotions and self-lacerating confessionalism. Not only does she strike a nerve, she's a nervy artist who takes chances each time out.
Every album since Car Wheels has been a revelation, refusing to travel that same gravel road; every release is a surprise.
Her new disc Little Honey, due out October 14 on Lost Highway Records (she's currently touring in advance of the album's release), represents the biggest surprise to date, not because it's really, really good (which the best of it is), but because it's (gulp) really, really happy. It could have been titled Lu's In Love. The source of her romantic rapture is her fiance Tom Overby, a former record industry distribution exec who now serves as her manager and is the album's co-producer.
How does she love he? Let us count the ways.
She loves him with a schoolgirl's giddiness (the album-opening "Real Love"). She loves him soul deep ("Tears Of Joy"). She loves him with a sensual urgency ("Honey Bee": "Oh, my little honey bee/I'm so glad you stung me/Now I've got your honey/All over my tummy"). She loves him in the tranquility of a post-coital languor that could last forever ("Knowing"). And she loves him in a way that makes him all that's right in a world gone wrong ("Plan To Marry").
The music never allows the sentiments to sound sappy, with her killer band, featuring the lacerating guitar of Doug Pettitbone, augmented by background vocals (including the buoyant pop harmonies of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs) as well as some sophisticated horn charts on a couple of cuts. Yet such an album plainly represents another big risk for Williams, a heart-on-her-sleeve effort when her heart is in such an uncommonly good place.
Because, face it, more great music has come from romantic strife than domestic bliss. Think Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks. Think Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights. And then think about how hard it has been to take Paul McCartney seriously since "Silly Love Songs" (not to mention "My love does it good"), and how Vince Gill's career went south with Let's Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, his musical mash-note to Amy Grant.
Little Honey follows West, which received the most polarized reviews of Williams' career, as New York producer Hal Willner fashioned arrangements that strayed from her signature musical roots and thus alienated many who would prefer that Williams stay in one musical place. Some thought it was her worst album; I thought it ranked with her best. It was certainly no dance party, with much of the material inspired by the death of her mother and a romantic breakup. Yet in the interviews promoting that release, Williams suggested she'd already moved to a different emotional place with new boyfriend Overby, who was credited as the executive producer of West.
Where that album was very much a produced effort, not an attempt to replicate the dynamic of Williams and band in live performance, Little Honey is more like audio verite, with false starts, laughs and asides punctuating the tracks.
Over thirteen cuts, Williams covers more musical bases than ever before, from the jukebox honky-tonk of "Circles And X's" (an older song that offers some change-of-pace heartbreak) to the psychedelic collage of "Heaven Blues" (which recycles her previous album's emasculating "Come On"). There's a jokey duet with Elvis Costello on "Jailhouse Tears", which allows them to say things to each other that George and Tammy never could on record.
There's also a sub-theme of sorts, expressed through three songs detailing different stages of an artist's career. The tender, majestic "Little Rock Star" (reportedly addressed to troubled British musician Pete Doherty) offers older-and-wiser advice to someone trapped in the rock 'n' roll bad-boy myth. On a rambunctious rendition of AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top" that closes the album, Williams and band make the road warriors' anthem their own. In between is "Rarity", a moving tribute from a fan to an undersung artist who has never received the commercial success she deserves. "No hits on the radio/No one knows who you are," sings Williams. "No big deal with a video/So you're never gonna be a big star." Ultimately, it's a song about a music industry that tries to "seduce you with money and fuck your respect." If another songwriter had written this, we might suspect that the song is about Lucinda Williams.
Yet there's no question that "Tears Of Joy", the album's linchpin, is transparently autobiographical. It's one of the most moving performances she has ever recorded, a bluesy confession with a backing vocal chorus that splits the difference between girl-group and gospel choir. "I used to play games with my boyfriends," she sings. "Fashion and fame, hip little trends. Now I have a real man, don't have to pretend. And that's why I'm crying tears of joy."
You might wonder how this makes those other guys feel, the ones who apparently weren't "real men," but the song plainly provides catharsis for Williams, leaving no doubt that she can generate emotional power from joy as well as pain. Such a progression has been a long time coming. When I interviewed Williams after she'd moved back to Austin before the release of 1992's Sweet Old World, she told me something that has stuck with me:
"I'm trying to grow as a person, and the songs have to grow along with it," she explained. "You can't be running your whole life and keep suffering and think you have to be miserable to get grist for the mill. I've never really believed that, but I know a lot of songwriters who start getting too settled in and they lose that edge or something, so they sabotage the relationship and create all this chaos and then they have something to write about. I'm trying to grow beyond that."
Sixteen years later, maybe she has.