by Josh Hurst
Or: Lucinda Williams’ Highway 20 Revisited
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.
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.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Sam C. Mac’s review in Slant.
- Read Mark Deming’s All Music review.
- Read George de Stefano’s review at Popmatters.
- Read Grayson Haver Currin’s review at Pitchfork.
- Read Lucinda’s far-flung interview with Vulture.
- Read another revealing interview in The Wall Street Journal.