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Bring the Pain


Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears

Lost Highway, 2003

Rating: 4.3



Posted: April 5, 2003

By Laurence Station

On the title track of World Without Tears, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams' seventh album, the Louisiana-born artist comes tantalizingly close to summing up her philosophy on life and its lessons: "If we lived in a world without tears / How would bruises find a face to lie upon? / How would scars find the skin to etch themselves into? / How would broken find the bones?" Williams is a glutton for punishment; her art couldn't exist without it. She's been making distinct, idiosyncratic and fiercely independent music since the late '70s, yet it wasn't until 1998's Grammy-winning Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (six arduous years in the making) that she gained widespread acknowledgment for her work. After years spent watching others take her songs to the top of the charts, of being a Nashville outsider who just happened to write A-List Music City tunes, Lucinda, with her weather-cracked, ever-on-the-edge-of-breaking-apart voice and notoriously fickle live performances, was in demand. Finally, she had reached the summit.

The problem is, Williams' work has always been defined by that struggle, by reaching so deeply within herself to prove her naysayers wrong, that her newfound success seemed something of a Pyrrhic victory. Artistic and material success is wonderful, but who wants to hear songs about how great things are going? What deep well of pain would Lucinda explore post-Car Wheels? 2001's Essence, with its minimalist production and Williams paring her usually verbose lyrics (often redolent with geographical imagery) down to the bare bones, readily answered that burning question. ("Lonely Girls." "Steal Your Love." "Reason To Cry." See a pattern emerging?) The album stood as her most emotionally direct, intimately concerned work to date, in spite (or perhaps because) of her newfound success.

World Without Tears is informed by similar tales of heartbreak and failed relationships, but bears the hallmark of being the most musically polished (albeit in an immediate, live manner befitting its recording) and sonically textured record of Williams' career. Listeners familiar with Car Wheels will certainly have every right to be skeptical about such a claim -- after all, that effort featured such seasoned heavyweights as Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and Charlie Sexton. But unlike Car Wheels, World Without Tears benefits from live performances by Williams' crack backing band. Guitarist Doug Pettibone shines brightest, especially on "Righteously," with its creatively circular guitar loops, and the fire and brimstone crunch of "Atonement." Drummer Jim Christie and bassist Taras Prodaniuk accord themselves handsomely throughout as well. As a result, World Without Tears is the first Lucinda Williams album where the sound rivals (and, at points, surpasses) the lyrics. That's no small feat, and it's the album's true triumph.

About those lyrics: World Without Tears is far from Williams' strongest lyrical effort, but it does feature some of the best songs she's written. The languorous opener "Fruits Of My Labor," wherein Williams addresses her newfound fame and the trials and tribulations of becoming content with success; "Those Three Days," about a romantic fling that means more to one partner than to the other; and the bleak, morose "Minneapolis," where "black clouds have covered up the sun again:" All of these songs resonate with an equal balance of measured craft and Williams' heartbreakingly poignant delivery. All three confidently stack up to anything else in her formidable canon, and to even imagine anyone else covering them is near impossible.

But World Without Tears drags in the spots where Williams detaches herself from the subject matter and deals in generalities. "Overtime" is a tremulous, overly languid, post-Romance blues number too generic to leave more than a marginal impression, while "American Dream," with its sing-speak rap on everything from drug addicted Vietnam vets to disappointed Navajo mothers, is one of the worst songs Williams has ever recorded. Thankfully, it sounds great, with bassist Prodaniuk masterfully holding things together. But trying to spew a litany of American ills and failing to place them within a larger context (save for the pointless, too-obvious tagline "Everything is wrong"), is uncharacteristic laziness, a misguided fast grab at thematic profundity.

Despite these misfires, however, World Without Tears bears the undeniable stamp of one of our truest and all-too-rare artists. Here's selfishly hoping the wound in Lucinda's heart never heals completely, if only so we can continue listening as she struggles to assuage the burning pain inside.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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