Josh Hurst

Month: February, 2016

BUILD A BRIDGE

Or: Vince Gill’s habit of being.

down to my last bad habit

Though “Lovesick Blues” is best known as a Hank Williams composition, it actually didn’t come from the country godfather’s pen at all; it’s an old Tin Pan Alley pop song that Williams refashioned for his own purposes, given a country inflection but retaining its shape as a carefully considered blues. That’s a revealing insight into the DNA of Williams’ music, perhaps of classic country song craft in general: For all their affectations of down-home simplicity, great country songs tend to be sturdy formal constructs, deploying many twists and tricks from the songwriter’s toolbox, great sophistication in service of emotional simplicity. Their very sturdiness is what makes them enduring: These songs are built to carry weight; they’re built to hold up. A song like “Lovesick Blues” is poetry at its most naked and direct, an expression of human desire that is profound precisely because of its spare verbiage and its emotional accessibility. It is little wonder that, as his life entered a season of turmoil and upheaval, Elvis Costello set aside his own wordy compositions in favor of pared-down Williams, Charlie Rich, and George Jones tunes, all recorded for an album called Almost Blue; these songs, Costello would later confess, more precisely expressed his tortured state of mind than any of his usual puns or innuendos.

The highest compliment you can pay to Vince Gill is that he is a country songwriter from exactly this tradition. He is country through and through, but not in a way that feigns backwoods authenticity. His country is both more direct and more all-encompassing than that; he is a craftsman, and if his songs aren’t blessed with flashiness they do have tremendous staying power. What seems simple at first gradually betrays a full array of songwriting tricks. Gill’s songs are straightforward in their humanity, relatable to anyone with two ears and a heart, but the pleasures in their craft take a few listens to unspool. And on Down to My Last Bad Habit, those pleasures are more compact and insidious than ever. While These Days spent four whole discs tracing country’s lineage through bluegrass, honky tonk, and pop, this album is a bit more coy in its complexity, more casual in its virtuosity. “Me and My Girl” may well be colored with some dobro and steel guitar, and the weepy “Sad One Comin’ On” earns it dedication to George Jones, but this album also has room for “I Can’t Do This,” which scales the same emotional heights as a Burt Bacharach song. Underneath its twang, “Me and My Girl” moves from verse to chorus to bridge with all the deftness of a Beatles song, racking up hook after hook in just over three minutes, and Gill’s guitar pyrotechnics on “Make You Feel Real Good” are exactly as appropriate to this album as Chris Botti’s trumpet work on “One More Mistake I Made.”

For an album given to careful craft over flash and gimmicks, it’s only appropriate that the songs here are songs of experience—songs of committed, long-term love. They play out like scenes from a marriage—and in just a few cases, from a marriage laid to ruin. There is desire here, but nothing like the carnal rush of teenage infatuation. Joy is linked with fidelity, not the rush of the new. Pleasures are simple, and heartaches are taken in stride—trials that last for a season. In many ways, the album would make a strong thematic companion to Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour, another meditation on love as a commitment; a habit; a verb to be taken anew with each day, not a noun to be possessed and forgotten.

Vince Gill

There is a sense of contentment even in the sad ones. “Down to My Last Bad Habit” is a lover’s plea from a man whose rabblerousing is done with; he’s tasted and seen the sensual pleasures of this world and it’s cost him the love of his life, but what he’s gained is clarity. Everything that’s ever tempted him has lost its taste and meaning, diminished by love’s true light. He’s grown up and he’s moved on, and in doing so discovered the one thing he can’t leave behind: “Well I don’t roll with the boys no more/ I quit everything you left me for/ The one thing that I’ll always be addicted to/ Oh I’m down to my last bad habit—you.” The song hinges on that central metaphor, which is obvious just from the title—but then it’s not meant to be surprising: The song’s reward is in how the tale plays out. For all the songs that compare love to addiction, this one stands apart for its slow burn: It’s not about a high, but an ache in the night; it’s not about a rush, but a dependence. Gill plays it like grown-up soul music, supple grooves colored by mournful guitar licks.

There are other sad numbers, too, though not all of them sound that way at first. “Reasons For the Tears I Cry” opens the album with crisp snare drums, cool keyboards, and doo-wop harmonies; it’s a classic soul number that could have come from Smokey Robinson’s pen, even as its lyric proudly joins the ranks of great country songs about lovers a-leavin’. On the other side of the journey there’s “Sad One Comin’ On,” a sadsack’s lament that mentions a beat-up six-string in the first verse and an abandoned bar room in the second, every shuffled snare, weepy steel guitar lick, and high-and-lonesome harmony vocal underscoring the song’s enveloping, lived-in melancholy. Yet it’s never depressing because it’s not really about a sad situation; it’s about a song’s ability to make us feel things, something shared by great country and pop standards alike and well evidenced here by “I Can’t Do This,” the kind of huge ballad on which Gill first made a name for himself. The scenario here is a man watching the woman he once loved out dancing with another man; and he just looks on, “like comin’ up on a car crash.” It’s schmaltz, but in the best sense: Honest emotion delivered with earnestness and candor, and supported by supple craft. The story is told in the Dionne Warwick heights of the chorus but also in the little details in the lyric, like how the narrator recognizes the woman’s red dress—the one he used to see hanging on their bedroom door. The song isn’t “She’s Your Lover Now.” It’s abject despair, given careful shape by three-and-a-half minutes of emotive writing and singing.

That same flourish of craft animates the happier songs, too, which define the album’s restful, contented air. What sells the contentment is how Gill packs it with sensual pleasures: Quiet fidelity may not be flashy, but neither is it boring. “My Favorite Movie” shimmers like a doo-wop song, its lyric celebrating domesticity in the face of time’s advance and the culture’s sales pitch for cheap romance; it’s the flip side of the rabble-rouser from “Down to My Last Habit,” a song for someone who has realized before it’s too late that the real fun is in stillness with his beloved. “Make You Feel Real Good,” meanwhile, is a sex song—and the pleasures here are plentiful, both in the music and the lyrics, crisp snare drums, barroom piano, wheezy harmonica, and coy guitar licks underscoring Gill’s come-ons; he’s listened to enough old blues songs to know that automotive and train metaphors never go out of style. “Me and My Girl” lists all the good things—back-porch pickin’, fried chicken, windows-down driving—that pale in comparison to moments fully, presently experienced with the beloved; it’s got an insistent beat adorned with glowing steel, soulful harmonies, twang, electricity, and euphoria. Committed love and everyday grace deserve a joyful noise, and Gill makes one here.

“Like My Daddy Did” is the record’s sweetest tribute to marriage as an act of bridge building, and the slyest deployment of Gill’s songwriting skill. This one’s a wedding song, and the song title is a phrase on which the whole thing hinges. In the first verse, a woman admits that she’s been skeptical of love ever since her father ran out on her—but in the second, her lover looks back fondly on his own father’s fidelity, and knows in his heart that there’s enough love and trust for the both of them: “When it comes to love I’m the trusting kind/ There ain’t no scars on this heart of mine.” But in the final verse, it’s not about him, but them—fearless love forged between the two of them. The song is about the sins of the father, the ghosts of abandonment—but also marriage as an act of creation, and love as something that is gracious and unafraid and keeps no record of wrongdoing.

Song and marriage are metaphors for one another on this album, and Gill’s writing gives existential witness to the deep truths he’s conveying: With love and with songwriting, there’s something to be said for a patient unfolding, an everyday faithfulness, a mindfulness in the mundane. Both are habits of being—and in immersing himself in these decidedly non-flashy, non-glamorous moments, Gill extracts the common grace within them.


Further resources:

NOT A POPSTAR

Or: Where the Fuck Did Monday Go?

blackstar

For all his alien affectations, his wrangling of style and trends, his embodiment of artifice and his extensive work in plastic and silicon, David Bowie’s best albums are evocative of something deeply and unmistakably human. They have red blood in their veins. His gift is how he mines timelessness from something as fleeting as fashion. Among singer/songwriters he is unparalleled in how little he fetishizes authenticity, yet the sweet irony of his life’s work is in how much honesty he extracts from playacting.

Low, one of the great David Bowie albums, is evocative of weariness and alienation; it is the sound of estrangement from the self, a kind of reflexive withdrawal that affirms human connection by highlighting its gaping absence. Hunky Dory, another great David Bowie album, chases permanence through identity crises. Scary Monsters might have been a classicist David Bowie album—its character largely defined by how it synthesizes and rearranges sounds and ideas from earlier in his career—but transcends craft-for-its-own-sake by powerfully conjuring the dread power of fear and the insinuation of creeping paranoia. By contrast, The Next Day merely evokes the sound and general feeling of a solid David Bowie album, and as such is but a perfectly respectable exercise in classicism.

It takes just a listen to Blackstar to recognize it as belonging firmly in the former company: Though it has touchstones in the cool ambiance of the Berlin era, the glitchy electronics of Bowie’s 90s work, and some of the good-natured charlatanism that has been his stock in trade at least since Hunky Dory, it doesn’t sound like any Bowie album or era in particular, and neither is it content to evoke the goodwill we might have toward a veteran artist carefully re-drafting his landmarks. Following several more-than-decent “comeback” albums in which Bowie settled into the spirit of craft, Blackstar is an album that reconnects him to his adventurer’s spirit, his zeal for discovery largely untapped since the era of Outside and Earthling.

Defining what it is, exactly, that Blackstar evokes is an altogether more elusive task, a hermeneutic feat clouded considerably by a cruel trick of time: The album was released on the singer’s 69 birthday and for the span of a weekend might have held a very particular meaning, a meaning now all but been erased and overwritten by Bowie’s subsequent passage. Blackstar’s recording and release—relatively brief, perhaps even rushed when compared to the decade of silence preceding The Next Day—came into stark focus, a last will and testament that the artist put to tape even while passing through the terminal stages of cancer. Time changed him in the end, but Bowie didn’t waste time, and Blackstar bears witness to a final burst of creative vision. Though its songs and shadows hold ominous talismans, Easter eggs from beyond the grave that only seem obvious now that he’s gone, Blackstar is not a morbid record, nor one that fetishizes death. Instead, it works through riddles, mind-benders, sleight-of-hand tricks, knowing deceptions, jokes, red herrings, stories that may or may not be as autobiographical as they seem. It’s the last in a long series of cons in which the listener has been happily complicit; the truth of David Bowie was always in theater, never in confession.

Blackstar is startlingly sleek, which is surprising given its origins: The songs here have their roots in Bowie’s Broadway play, in TV soundtrack work, and in Nothing Has Changed, the excellent 2014 retrospective that is now, bittersweetly, definitive. For its hodgepodged sourcing, the album moves with unity of purpose, the streamlined momentum of an intentional song suite. Cagy to the end, Bowie opens with the most demanding and claustrophobic material, the album’s back stretch opening up into more conventional pop craft and balladry. Much of the album is invigorated by a team of new collaborators, most notably an edgy Manhattan jazz group fronted by sax virtuoso Donny McCaslin. (Strangely, this ensemble shares a bassist with Tedeschi-Trucks Band.) Bowie’s jazzmen are merely a quartet, though you wouldn’t know it from the sheer force of their sound; like the great Mingus bands, theirs is a music of many voices, unruly arrangements and rambunctious performances giving the impression of a far more multitudinous group, imbuing Blackstar’s songs with playfulness, menace, and unease.

But what matters most is how the record exists in the present tense; how the record celebrates and even mirrors the life and character of its auteur—not in the manner of some sepia-toned highlights reel, but in the mischief of a visionary who’s equally committed to bidding his audience farewell while also fucking with us just one last time. “Man, she punched me like a dude” is a lyric you can imagine Dylan singing, perhaps, but it would have been on Bringing it All Back Home or Blonde on Blonde, not on Time Out of Mind. Yet that’s the kind of panache Bowie uses to open “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” which opens with a deep breath before exploding into five minutes of sustained kinetics—a driving backbeat, shimmering keyboards, a maelstrom of competing sax players blowing deep blues, and the singer standing at the center of the swirl, his mood playful and reflective in equal measure, his charisma undiminished. The song shares its name with a controversial play from the Jacobean era, and a Vaudevillian sensibility taken from Hunky Dory but transplanted into a manic underground jazz club. The lyric is a tease: The narrator remembers an encounter he had back during war times—“’Tis my fate, I suppose”—and its general sense of looking back  and taking stock is the only part of it that easily scans as autobiography.

But then what is one to make is “Blackstar,” a song that is either about ISIS or Elvis Presley, depending on who you ask? The songs opens with scene-setting sound effects decidedly more exotic than Low’s cool descent into Warszawa, and the listener is lowered down into the “villa or Ormen” at what seems to be a public stoning—or is it a crucifixion? There’s something sinister here, but as the camera pans out our hero bursts forth from the grave—a marked man; a bad omen; a ticking time bomb; a black star. It’s an opera in miniature, and one of Bowie’s masterpieces: Over ten minutes it twists and contorts itself enough times to be a mirror to his own chameleon-like body of work, even as it finds him adopting poses altogether new and distinct. The saxophone—Bowie’s first instrument, and the emotional straight man to the more manic voices in his head—is there at the execution, bowed down in mourning; space alien effects whisk the song to somewhere else, and a bit of free jazz dissonance and skittering beats recast the sax as the embodiment of swing and swagger. In its resurrection, the song becomes something more lifelike and emotionally available than any of Station to Station’s plastic soul. The central section of the song plays like an inverted personality crisis; Bowie spent his career chasing one persona after another, but the narrator of this song knows exactly what he is—a man born to die—and everything he is not: “I’m a Blackstar/ I’m not a film star/ I’m a Blackstar/ I’m not a pop star.”

The other obvious signifier of second life is a song called “Lazarus,” released before the album by way of a ghostly music video. The song is floating, spectral, the saxophone returned to its role in lamentation. In the first verse the singer addresses us from Heaven—immortal; by the second verse immortality’s gone to his head. He’s dangerous—nothing left to lose. The song mounts into struggle, and ends in liberation: “Oh, I’ll be free/ Just like that bluebird/ Oh, I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me?”

“Dollar Days” floats like a dream, its saxophone prologue almost smooth jazz—worlds apart from the avant screeches and hollers found earlier on the record. Piano, acoustic guitar, and pounding drums carry the song somewhere altogether more dramatic: It’s a magician’s lament, not a plea for the grave to be spared but simply for a chance “to fool them all again,” just one last time. When he sings of his beloved English evergreens, he could be Moses wistfully staring into the Promised Land—knowing he’ll never make it there himself. They might as well be on Mars.

The song is a contortion, and it’s all Bowie’s—but only time itself can claim credit for the brutal inversion of “Girl Loves Me.” “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie sings in the chorus, and for about three days it might have been a song about time slipping through his fingers (as in, is it Tuesday already? Whatever happened to Monday?). But when Bowie died on a Sunday night it became a song about time run out—a Monday that never came, and perhaps was never going to. That cruelty is amplified by the song’s tough, steely demeanor: Its pulsing beat is unrelenting, the cinematic string flourishes are suitably brooding, and the singer reaches deep into his pain and comes out not with self-pity, but with white-hot rage.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” closes the album with a soulful, spacey ballad—another Bowie masterwork, and another magician’s lament. The lyrics reference departures and homecomings—pain and dysfunction, prodigals returning to the fold—but the chorus refuses to tie things up to neatly; when he tells us he can’t give everything away, he’s not talking about silver and gold, but his smoke and mirrors, the last few tricks up his sleeve. Skittering drums, electric guitars, and that dreamy saxophone carry the song home—explosively; decisively.

The album’s waning moments might as well be a poof of smoke—and then, just like that, our man is vanished. And we’re not sure what we just stood standing in front of us, as real as our own flesh and blood, except that it had the pulse of humanity—a triumph of mind and body in spite of the grave. Greil Marcus, in his book The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, shares the story of a young Phil Spector penning the song “To Know Him is to Love Him,” its title taken from the etching on a tombstone; dying is an easy thing to celebrate, Spector once said, but what he wanted was music that celebrated the far messier stuff of life. Blackstar may well be remembered as the album of David Bowie’s death, when in fact it is the album of his life—one of them, anyway.


Further resources:

SING IT IN A PRAYER

Or: Shared Time with the Tedeschi Trucks Good-Time Family Band.

let me get by

“I told you that times are a-changin,’” sings Susan Tedeschi on the title track from her band’s new record. She may not have actually sung those words before, but that’s not the point: She’s positioning herself in a lineage of song here, one that stretches back to and beyond Bob Dylan and them loops around to the present day, encompassing all the country, blues, gospel, folk, soul, and rock and roll singers who have born weary witness to rising tides and changing times. Not that Tedeschi wants you to get hung up on that. “… but I’ve got a body to move,” she finishes the line, and move she does—both herself and the listener—across ten songs of considerable soul and swagger; songs that nod their heads in the direction of hardship and sorrow, but don’t dwell on them, because who has the time?

Let Me Get By is not a record that could have been made by a young or inexperienced band. It’s weathered, tried and tested, but hopeful. It celebrates romance and community as stabilizers in a world ever in flux. It opens with the steely resolve of lovers rising from the ruins: “Cain and Abel lit the flame/ But we can never go that way again.” Three songs later, Juliet lies dead at Romeo’s feet; death creeps and the future is uncertain, but the song’s narrator pledges kinship: “I’m just here to share your time.” For its weightiness, this is ultimately both a happy and a joyful album—not the same thing, though here they are close enough. The music feels good. It unspools with uncommon generosity and the invitation of fraternity. Both love and music feel like verbs and not nouns here, and the listener who elects to sing along engages in a radical act against apathy and darkness.

Tedeschi Trucks Band is often categorized as a “jam” band, which here means openness rather than indulgence. The songs are too long to qualify as pop singles—one extends past eight minutes, another for more than seven, only one for under four—and there are extended instrumental codas here, yet nothing that feels like instrumental wonking just for the sake of it. Trucks and Tedeschi bring different levels of experience to these songs, and prove perfect foils for one another: Trucks, long-time Duane Allman fill-in, knows how to give the songs room to breathe, to take their time. He lets the band twist the songs this way and that, tearing into them from different angles, wringing out all their varied charms, allowing each band member a chance to shine. Tedeschi is a more disciplined student of song—check her fine solo album, Hope & Desire, produced by Joe Henry, where she sings Dylan, Ray Charles, and the Stones—and she keeps things on point. Even the jammy sections of the record are tuneful, the progressions and digressions logical and coherent.

ttb

Though the songs capture a loose camaraderie—only attainable through home recordings, featuring musicians who are warm and familiar with one another—they are arranged with precision. “Let Me Get By” has a funky main riff played by an organ, but the empty spaces are filled first with a lick of fire from Trucks, then with a punchy beat from the group’s full horn section.

The song’s body-movin’ counterpart is “I Want More,” which rides a Stax groove banged out by guitar, organ, horns, and drums all in unison; the groove breaks open into an Otis/Aretha vamp when the tambourine and gospel choir come in. It’s a song for the dancefloor, and it really moves—but movement is thematic as well as musical; throughout the album, forward momentum—acts of love, acts of song—spark a fire against long odds and dark horizons; they celebrate life lived fully and openly, consequences be damned: “Nothing can hold me down/ I’m taking the long way ‘round/ Can’t get enough, I want more/ When I come around this time/ There’s nowhere to run and hide/ I want more, more of you/ all of you.”

These aren’t flowery lyrics, but they’re exactly right for the spirit and sound of this record: They’re punchy and percussive; they’re clipped and expressive. Tedeschi drives every one of them home, the grit of her voice providing these words with their weight, their backstories, their scars. She is never more commanding than on the wild rumpus “Don’t Know What it Means,” the closest you’ll ever come to a party in a song. The song drives forward, stoic and resolute, Trucks’ slide work dancing all over the groove; when the chorus comes the whole thing explodes in voices; it’s a sing-along and a call to arms. Tedeschi is part motivational speaker and part James Brown here, finding salvation in hard work—in getting up and getting involved: “Now don’t look down in the dirt/ Just to find out what you’re worth/ ‘Cause that song and dance was never worth the time/ so work hard and do it right/ Learn to speak up and to fight/ The truth is gonna beat them down the line.”

It feels like the album this band has been striving for, the one they’ve trained for and worked toward—not just because it’s so vital, but because it’s so expansive. Check “Right On Time,” a musical theater stomper that sounds like it drifted upriver from New Orleans before it was fished out by Tom Waits, then handed to this band for safe keeping. Cabaret piano mixes with dirty riffs from the trumpet player. Harmony singer Mike Mattinson takes lead here, his deep deadpan a nice counterbalance to Tedeschi’s soul and grit. When she joins him and they take the song to its chorus, the horn section really swings into Mardi Gras mode. That’s one of the great virtues of this massive ensemble: A band this big and this open-hearted can conjure any number of sensual pleasures. See also Mattinson’s other lead vocal, on the eight-minute album centerpiece, “Crying Over You.” A string section soars over the groove, turning it into pure Philly soul; it climaxes in cataclysmic jamming, and the the droning coda—soft-lit interplay between flute, harmonium, and guitar—feels like a necessary breather.

“Just as Strange” takes the record somewhere else entirely: A kick drum pounds out the beat before twangy slide guitar and ratting hand percussion introduce a little country song so lived-in, it almost sounds rusted over. Tedeschi sings of self-reliance even with a hellhound on her trail: “I raised the devil on my own/ Gonna scratch and claw until it’s gone.”

But hope—like a lover’s steely resolve—gets the first and last word, plus a few words in between. “Anyhow” is the sweet hymn that opens the song. The singer stands amidst wreckage, but offers a hymn to starting over: “I would go anywhere, anytime,” she sings, her delivery graceful and measured, piano, harmony singers, and Trucks’ guitar licks joining her song of ascent. The song’s just too rousing not to end it with a blistering jam, guitar nirvana from Trucks. The New Orleans horns are back to introduce the closer, “In Every Heart,” pure gospel soul. Here salvation is in song: “In every heart there’s a psalm/ Coming to find you to sing along.” The album’s most ebullient grace note is here: As Tedeschi sings of being surprised by joy, the gospel chorus drives her point home: “You’d never believe it.”

“Hear Me” finds the band at its most beautiful, a lover’s plea. The first couplet contains the whole story: “When I watched you walk away/ I knew I’d gone too far.” But then comes recognition; the narrator affirms the long odds of two people finding and loving each other forever, almost as though star-crossed and predestined. “We were always going to work it out,” she sings, reconciliation the best and only conceivable future.

Let Me Get By sounds like sweet relief after a season of struggle— a sharing of battle stories and war wounds, a reckoning with everything that’s happened and everything still to come. There’s no promise of a better tomorrow, but there is this simple pledge: “I’m just here to share your time.” That’s what the record feels like: Shared time; hearts and souls poured into ten songs, songs generously filled out with dreams and ideas but left with the gates open and the door ajar, ready for the listener to find a place within, real engagement invited and rewarded. Bring your burdens with you; crank it up; and follow these instructions: “Sing it like a prayer.”


Further resources:

GHOST STORIES

Or: Lucinda Williams’ Highway 20 Revisited

ghosts of highway 20

Ever since she broke out with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998, Lucinda Williams’ calling card has been her sharp eye for geographic detail—her writerly skill at vividly evoking a sense of place. On that album—which included one song named for her home town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and a couple more called “Greenville” and “Jackson”—Williams chronicled life in the rural South of Faulkner and O’Connor, Charlie Daniels and Woody Guthrie. Her gift as a songwriter isn’t so much for dramatic arc; it’s for how little details pile up, build on one another, reach a tipping point.

Her new double album—the second one in a row—has a song called “Louisiana” and a title that evokes both the main drag connecting the cultural, personal, and geographic mile markers of her childhood, but also—let’s be honest—memories of her idol, Bob Dylan, tracing his own American epic long the fault lines of Highway 61.

The Ghosts of Highway 20 offers vivid witness to Williams’ affinity for place; her affection for detail; her love of Bob Dylan. It’s more reflective than her previous double, the soulful and Stonesy Down Where the Spirit Meets Bone, which is not to say less energetic: It crackles with frayed nerves and live energy, much of it from the guitar landscaping done by Greg Liesz and Bill Frissell, conjuring sublime interplay like they’re in a country-blues update of Television. The Dylan touchstone isn’t actually Highway 61 so much as the grizzled, lived-in albums of his third act—Modern Times and Time Out of Mind in particular. The album encompasses a sweeping definition of American folk song that has room for honky tonk, rock and roll, gospel music, blues—anything and everything that might have caught Harry Smith’s ear, were it not of such recent vintage and such immaculate studio craft. Like those recent Dylan albums, it is formally conservative but daring in how it hollows out those forms and uses them to the singer’s own end; the songs are not technically innovative but they are alive and daring in their lyrics, arrangements, and performances.

“Louisiana” is an epic of intimacy—a slow-plucked, softly sung recollection of childhood memories, adolescent signposts, ghosts and spirits long gone, but obviously not gone at all. It’s hypnotic in its ramble, and the entire point of the thing is how it never hits an obvious climax: It’s a Jackson Pollack painting in words, images and anecdotes splattered to suggest something bigger, if indistinct. Like Dylan’s “Highlands,” it’s almost a matter of groove, the blunt force of words standing in for funky rhythms or vamps.

As the final song of the first act, “Louisiana” is a crux. It’s also the album in microcosm—a reckoning with the landscape of the soul, by way of the landscape of the South. It also mimic’s the record’s strange alchemy, the way it builds something sweeping from something small-scale. See also the album opener, “Dust”—her second album opener in a row to hijack lyrics from one of her father’s written poems—which comes roaring out of the speakers with the sound of twin guitars—not really riffs, just guitar as pure sound and loose electricity. The lyric could be a monologue from King Lear or a lost chapter from Ecclesiastes, so wide-angle and universal are its lamentations: “There’s a sadness so deep/ The sun seems black/ And you don’t have to try to keep the tears back/ Because you couldn’t cry if you wanted to/ Even your thoughts are dust.”

That’s the opening salvo for an album that finds characters returning again and again to dust—the mud and clay of their formative years, the ash of their own mortality. The second disc opens with “Ghosts of Highway 20,” a roadmap where the landmarks aren’t necessarily geographic, nor even visible: It’s haunted by holy hurt, etched by the blues, sung with a kind of knowing sadness. The song opens with one of Lucinda’s best-ever Dylan moves, a casual toss-off of a familiar cliché—“I know this road like the back of my hand”—that she returns to again and again. It proves how good she’s gotten: The entire scope of this massive record seems packed into that little phrase, imbued with the full weight of pain, memory, and existence. She fills in the picture—firework stands, truck stops, FM stations, end-of-days warnings—but she almost doesn’t need to say anything else at all. She is well-acquainted with the joys and sorrows of this world, for better or worse.

lucinda

Memory haunts the album: As she surveys the landscape, what’s left unspoken is how much it feels like she never left; how much she’s carried all of it with her; how time and place have formed her, and how much of her own life falls within the lines of familiar maps and legends. “Bitter Memory,” a raucous acoustic thrasher, exorcises those memories. It’s honky tonk in its feel but punk rock in its spirit: Having conjured all of her ghosts and demons on the title cut, she tells them to go fuck themselves here. It makes a weapon of her will, and of song itself, but is later outgunned by the jagged blues of “If My Love Could Kill,” which imagines a love so deep and fierce it becomes a force of righteous rage against death, loss, and disease—in this case, the Alzheimer’s that claimed her father’s brain: “If my love could kill/ I would kill this/ Slayer of wonder/ Slayer of words/ Murderer of poets/ Murderer of songs/ Who robbed me of your memory/ Who robbed me of your time/ Made a way into the symphony/ Of your beautiful mind.” But what the song is really about is longing: That if becomes the cruelest word on the record; the singer’s dream is stillborn.

Memory finds its end in death, the album’s other touchstone; surely it isn’t coincidence that the supreme Poetess of Place references Heaven in two song titles here, which is to say nothing of “Death Comes,” a murder ballad where the murderer in question is Death itself—a stalker unceasing and relentless. “If There’s a Heaven,” once again finds the singer’s dreams turning to dust; pain and death are givens here, hope considerably shakier: “I have seen the face of Hell/ I know the place pretty damn well/ But when you go, you’ll let me know/ If there’s a Heaven out there.” On another song, she’s trying to get to Heaven before they close the door: “I tried to live my life in a righteous way/ I try to do my best from day to day/ But no matter how hard I try/ It seems all I do is cry/ So open up the doors of Heaven/ Let me in.”

The language of this album is stark, simple, almost archetypal; she writes in an intimate and a universal mode, sometimes both at once, and has never been as emotionally accessible as she is here. Each disc has a song that functions in the same way “To Make You Feel My Love” did on Bob’s Time Out of Mind: Songs made profound by their directness, buoyant by their earnestness. “Can’t Close the Door on Love” is a weathered love song—battered and bruised, and all the more resolved because of it: “I know we fight, and we can raise some hell/ But I’m gonna be with you the rest of my life/ Cause trust me, you can’t close the door on our love/ Just because you made somebody cry.” “Place in My Heart” is sweeter still—another imagining of a place that isn’t visible, but is real just the same.

This is a luxurious, immersive album—not the kind of double album that feels packed with songs and ideas, but the kind of double album where every song and album gets the space it needs to take deep root. (Note that there are only 14 songs total, seven in each act.) So it’s kind of a funny thing, then: An expansive record that goes on for a long time but feels focused and streamlined; it’s deep, not wide. The widest it ever goes is on the big finale, “Faith and Grace,” which jams for 13 minutes. By that point, she and her band have earned the right, and the song pulls together all the record’s themes and touchstones: How Lucinda uses the crags in her voice for maximum expressive effect, telling the story not just through words but through croaks and whispers; how her guitarists provide the sound and fury while the lyrics signify plenty; how essential the tight, in-the-pocket rhythm section is; how the lyrics reference all the pain and burdens felt on this side of heaven, but don’t feel down or destitute so much as calloused and brave. She’s lived long enough that she is no longer surprised when death comes or bitter memories surge; with faith and grace, she’ll weather whatever. The song recalls the album-ending jam “Magnolia” from last time around, but also songs like “Awakening”—trances and séances that build power through repetition.

Lucinda Williams knows all about it, she tells us on one song—she knows, as singer/songwriter Joe Henry put it, that “life is brutal for the weak and the sober.” Given the workingman’s blues in “Factory”—a Springsteen cover that fits well here—you could almost imagine some sense of relief when, indeed, death comes. But that’s not quite the story this record tells. Between memory’s specter and death’s advance, there is sweetness—love and courage; faith and grace. The singer knows heartache’s road like the back of her hand; she returns to it here tried and tested, stronger—with faith enough to raise one of the holiest ruckuses of her life.


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