Singing in Character
Great art comes from tortured artists, or so goes the standard trope applied to sad sacks who write beautiful songs or paint compelling pictures.
It's just not true for Lucinda Williams, however. Her art suffered in direct proportion to her own suffering on most of the albums she has released this decade. Thankfully, the Louisiana-born singer and songwriter seems to have shaken her deepest blues on her latest.
"Little Honey" (Lost Highway) is easily Williams' least depressing album in years, which doesn't sound like much of a compliment until you consider that she sounds downright happy on some of these tunes for the first time in, well, maybe ever. And when she slips into a downcast mood, it's tempered by the wistful romanticism -- that radiant spark suggesting that one day everything will make sense -- that defines her best work.
She lost that spark for a while. If 2003's "World Without Tears" was tough on the heart, then Williams' 2007 follow-up "West" was her emotional nadir. The album deals with the death of her mother and a tumultuous break-up, and her grief overwhelms her considerable gifts as a songwriter.
In concert last year, though, she spoke in near-giddy tones about her fiancé, and her newfound happiness seems to have spilled over into the songs on "Little Honey."
Williams signals the change right from the start on "Real Love," a blistering rocker that celebrates her long-delayed romantic success with biting guitar and close harmony vocals from Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs.
Even when Williams cries here, it's out of happiness on the bluesy waltz "Tears of Joy." She sticks with blues of a sort on "Heaven Blues," a slow, almost spoken-word tune where she contrasts the paradise she expects to reach some day with the idea of creating her own version in the here and now.
When she's not extolling love, Williams is offering cautionary tales about the rock 'n' roll life -- "This is not all that it's cracked up to be," she warns on the gritty "Little Rock Star," a theme she reprises on "Rarity" and with her rootsy cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" -- and swapping verses with Elvis Costello on "Jailhouse Tears." It's a country duet in classic form as he offers explanations and excuses while she writes him off as a loser.
This time, though, it's clear that Williams is singing in character -- after lifetime of losers and write-offs, "Little Honey" revels in finding true love at last.