by Noah Kucij
I know Lucinda Williams reminds you of your mom. And that’s fair enough: her breakthrough album, for which she won her first Grammy (the fanny pack of accolades), came out when she was 45. But because her CDs came standard in turn-of-the-century Subaru Outbacks, you may have missed what she’s been up to all these years: writing some of the best songs this side of Dylan, and singing them in a voice that will tear you to pieces. I’d recommend every note she recorded in her second quarter-century, but for starters take these five tracks for a Sunday drive.
5. “Drunken Angel” from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998)
No recording I know better captures that driving, Byrdsy jangle and full Hammond backbone that makes the best “alt-country” work. But what sets Williams apart from her cohort is the raw, upfront beauty of her singing, here perfectly strung through lines of punchy consonants and unladylike vowels. She recalls a musician friend lost too young, “a derelict in your duct-taped shoes,” and the critics and groupies who would “write about your soul, your guts, / criticize you and wish you luck.” The half-angry nostalgia of the verses comes to a head in the impossibly simple, tenderly harmonized chorus. Like the album, it stands up to a thousand listens.
4. “Fruits of My Labor” from World Without Tears (2003)
A waltz with all the smoky-room swagger of “These Arms of Mine” and “Walking After Midnight,” crossed with a chapbook you found in a dusty bookstore. Again the poet squeezes every corner of the lyrical toothpaste tube in the verses, arriving at a simple, unvarnished pearl of human feeling in the refrain. Gorgeously dreamlike images of flowers and fruit and fleeting lushness give way to a tortured “Baby, sweet baby.”
3. “Essence” from Essence (2001)
What’s more heartwrenching than separation? Maybe only compulsion. Here Williams kicks it into scary-sexy overdrive with a song that captures helpless obsession in every note, milking the trope of drug addiction without a drop of overreach. “Please come find me and help me get fucked up,” she pleads at the end of one slow, slithering verse, before copping in the chorus that “I am waiting on your back steps.”
2. “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” from Lucinda Williams (1988)
On the less pathological side of the road, here is a straight-ahead account of the uncertain beginnings of something exciting. This has got to be one of the purest love songs ever written.
1. “Those Three Days” from World Without Tears (2003)
…And this has got to be one of the most complex. Williams lets the surrealism flow and the syntax bleed as she deals with a short-lived affair gone bad: “You say there’s always gonna be this thing / Between us days are filled with dreams / Scorpions crawl across my screen / Make their home beneath my skin…” The jilted anger mounts, but what kills is the chorus, which suddenly breaks into vulnerable interrogative: “Did you only want me for those three days / Did you only need me for those three days / Did you love me forever just for those three days?” Somehow it always reminds me of Van Morrison’s question-marked refrain in “Astral Weeks” – both songs are so saturated with longing and confusion that the world in three dimensions can no longer hold them, and off they sail into the heartbroken mystic.
Lucinda deserves a place on the shelf beside Van and Joni and Bruce and very few others who were doubly blessed with the pipes and the pen. Maybe your mom knows something you don’t.