Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World

Lucinda Williams
Sweet Old World

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In the early 1990s, Lucinda Williams was a mostly unknown country-folk singer/songwriter, her self-titled 1988 album garnering enthusiastic reviews from critics and fellow musicians but only modest commercial attention. It took a damn-near-perfect album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), to gain Williams a much larger fan base and establish her as one of music's leading lyricists. After Car Wheels, the singer faced a lifetime of critical hyperbole - even being inaccurately defined as the "female Bob Dylan" - and every album that followed would inevitably be judged against the mighty weight of that masterpiece.

All of which gives Sweet Old World a unique position in the musician's discography. It marks the final album in which Williams would be largely free of preconceived expectations from both critics and fans; it's also likely to be the last album in which the musician could work without facing comparisons to Car Wheels. It received consistently favorable reviews upon its release in 1992, though a complaint that continues to plague the artist - the amount of time it takes her to release a new record - can be found in some of these reviews. It's around the time of Sweet Old World that Williams gained a reputation as a truculent perfectionist in the studio; indeed, it would take another six years before its follow-up album was released.

The album is essentially split between tragic character studies - the one exception, "Little Angel, Little Brother," is commonly mistaken as a song about death, owing largely to its funereal arrangement and slow vocals - and relationship songs that emphasize specific details over grandiose, generalized statements about Love. In both cases the album is somewhat inconsistent, and pieces of it haven't aged particularly well. Still, Sweet Old World does contain two of Williams' finest written suicide songs: the title song and "PiƱeola." Complete opposites in terms of execution - one is a tear-soaked ballad, the other mixes the blues with southern rock - both songs find Williams using specific images like the "sound of a midnight train," "dancing with no shoes," the cemetery in which Sonny is buried, a mourner dropping a "handful of dust" on a grave and parents removing blood-soaked sheets to make both songs and their sentiments tangible. We don't personally know the person or people she's singing about, but we almost feel like we do.

In a similar manner, both "Six Blocks Away" and "Memphis Pearl" are precise depictions of two people whose lives didn't turn out as they'd planned, though the subject of "Memphis Pearl" - a once-married and now presumably single mother whose eyes offer only a "vacant stare" - seems to be in a far more precarious situation than the lovesick fellow with the "regular job" and a "roof over his head and food to eat" in "Six Blocks Away." But Williams does occasionally falter. The lyrics to "He Never Got Enough Love" read like a bad Nebraska-era Springsteen parody, its central figure ultimately pulling his own Johnny 99 by shooting someone in a liquor store; the song's impact and believability are completely deadened by the excessively banal reason Williams gives for the man's actions (read the song title; if only it were that simple).

Sweet Old World is not purely dark, however. As she would on every album from Car Wheels to the present, Williams devotes plenty of disc space to that most frequent of song topics. The cynicism and dysfunction chronicled in her catalog starting with Car Wheels are mostly absent here, as she instead includes love songs that range from affectionate to raunchy. True there are some weepers - most notably "Sidewalks of the City," where Williams tracks someone's movements through a city of early afternoon boozers, bums and "crumbling buildings and graffiti" - but the love songs here are generally affectionate. There is an underlying sadness in the departure about to take place in "Something about What Happens When We Talk," but it's mixed with a bit of hope and nostalgia, while "Prove My Love" is a straightforward, unadorned song about fidelity and is notably free of Williams' sometimes-caustic tongue. Sometimes Sweet Old World is even a little dirty - on " Lines Around Your Eyes" and more so on "Hot Blood," a song of old folk music puns and sexual innuendo - but never do these songs approach the levels of bitterness and betrayal that would surface on Williams' later records.

Lucinda Williams was by no means a novice when she recorded Sweet Old World, but in retrospect it probably was the last time listeners didn't have preconceived notions about who she was or what her songs should sound like. Free of such expectations, Williams created an album that, though not perfect, has a number of remarkable songs and deserves some of the spotlight usually reserved for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

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