The roots-rock queen of heartbreak has finally found her sweet spot. On Little Honey, the ninth studio album from Lucinda Williams, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter counterbalances tales of bitter love with songs of newfound bliss.
The former approach is her forte, but the latter isn't very convincing. That doesn't mean that the happy tunes, partly inspired by her romance with her manager-fiance Tom Overby, are a bust. They're just not as affecting or as nuanced as her melancholic cuts, making Little Honey uneven. The flow of the 13-song set isn't as smooth as other Williams' albums, namely Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or last year's wounded West.
Part of the reason the upbeat songs feel somewhat forced is Williams' voice. It's not particularly flexible or versatile.
The album opens with the driving "Real Love," a standout "happy song." But most of the credit goes to the hot rhythm section. Williams ventures into familiar territory on the cry-in-your-beer ballad "Circles and X's," written more than 20 years ago.
On the dissonant "Little Rock Star," Williams bemoans the perils of fame. The song was reportedly inspired by the lives of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty, but it feels shapeless. That's followed by the humorous, tongue-in-cheek "Honey Bee," perhaps the best rocker on the album. Williams sounds, a little sassy and raunchy.
But the sentiment turns sharp and bitter again on "Jailhouse Tears," a trashy soap operalike duet with Elvis Costello. As Little Honey crawls to a close, Williams never regains the momentum found midway. She's may not always be at the top of her game here. But whether she's down in the dumps or up in the clouds, Williams still manages to stand head and shoulders above most modern pop singer-songwriters.
*** (3 Stars out of 4)
Download these: "Circles and X's," "Honey Bee," "If Wishes Were Horses" and "Well Well Well"