Counting the recent World Without Tears (Lost Highway), Lucinda Williams has put out three records in the past five years--that's as many as she made in the 18 years preceding 1998's flawless Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Steady touring, increased popularity, and critical acclaim have surely helped ease some of the business hassles that slowed her down in the past, but what the new album really makes plain is that this notorious perfectionist has become a little easier on herself--it's her loosest work to date. That's not to say it's a lazy album. As usual Williams mines plenty of vivid imagery from her favorite subject, romantic obsession. Few singers can tap into their own longing and loneliness with such precision and poignancy: sweet garden delights counter the pain of a lover's absence in "Fruits of My Labor" ("Traced your scent through the gloom / Till I found these purple flowers"), and a brief fling in "Those Three Days" leaves her with the romantic d.t.'s ("Scorpions crawl across my screen / Make their home beneath my skin / Underneath my dress stick their tongues / Bite through my flesh down to the bone"). Her raw, sexy drawl finds unexpected nuances within her fairly run-of-the-mill blues-based melodies, making both the gentle "Fruits of My Labor" and the scorching "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" sound like intimate conversations. The album stumbles here and there: it's hard not to cringe at the line "Lean over the toilet bowl / And throw up my confessions" in the otherwise gorgeous "Ventura," and the unfocused wailing in "Atonement" sounds more strident than desperate. But though the album's second half threatens to stall, even when World sputters it gets you where you need to go. She opens for Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Tuesday, June 17, 7:30 PM, United Center, 1901 W. Madison; 312-455-4500 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danny Clinch.