'Little Honey" is a fitting title for Lucinda Williams' ninth studio release. For a songwriter whose best work deals in pain, loss, suffering and anguish, "Little Honey" is a bracing blast of sweetness one does not expect from Lucinda.
That's the good news. The bad is the same – "Little Honey" is never cloying, never a confection, but don't you hate it when your favorite writers of heartbreak suddenly find themselves happy?
And Lu is, apparently, happy as a clam. She's downright euphoric about her new love (record exec, now Williams' producer, Tom Overby), her career and her life. Rotten luck for us.
From the opening track ("Real Love") to the end ("Plan to Marry"), Williams writes and sings about her joy of, at 55, a pending marriage (her first), and the love she finds in Overby.
Nearly every track is a variation on those themes, from "Knowing" (I didn't know what love meant before) to "Rarity" (You are a rarity / Your eyes say wisdom / Your skin says frailty / Your mouth says listen) to "Tears of Joy" (Now I have a real man, don't have to pretend / That's why I'm crying tears of joy).
Her voice is still cracked and parched, a moaning instrument that had fit snugly with her songs of regret, heartbreak and bitter loss. Where once she demanded and snarled to be given back her joy ("Joy" from 1998's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"), she's now thrilled to be in love ("Tears of Joy") and nothing is going to keep her down.
It's an unexpected place to find Williams, but throughout she maintains the gruff musical backing that reminds us of midcareer Rolling Stones, "Exile on Main Street" era. "Little Honey" is full of those kind of crunching guitar riffs and rockin' beats with a country heart.
She's backed again by her touring guitarist, Doug Pettibone, whose fills add that bracing rockiness to her lyrics. Guest players sit in, and even Elvis Costello (now, there's a surprise) comes in for a vocal call-and-response on "Jailhouse Tears."
The production, from Overby and Eric Liljestrand, is dense and dark, full of whirling organ and tambourine, with layers of guitars, acoustic and electric. It's hard-edged, and not a perfect fit for her cozy lyrics of happiness. But she combines that approach nicely on her cover of AC/DC's "Long Way to the Top," ending the album.
All that's fine, it's fun and we love Lucinda. But oddly enough, the best cut among the 13 tracks is something she wrote nearly 25 years ago, the rejected lover on "Circles and X's" (I'm just at the end of my rope / And you're just tuggin at my heart).
You've got to love the pain.
3 Stars out of 4
DOWNLOAD THIS: "Circles and X's"