Out There

Perfectly imperfect

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Lucinda Williams
Mercury Records

Only critics and accountants care about the eternity it took Lucinda Williams to record her fourth record in nearly 20 years. That it ate up six years--not to mention four producers (including Steve Earle), a handful of engineers, a dozen or so backup musicians, and two start-from-scratch attempts--makes for good feature-story fodder, but in the end, musicians should never be judged on their gossip. Besides, no one in the world will listen to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and ever complain it sounds too produced, too sterile; indeed, if you didn't know better, you'd swear it was recorded over a relaxed summer weekend out in the country--surprisingly, inexplicably, it plays out like a casual masterpiece.

Then again, the most critically celebrated singer-songwriter of the past decade--best known among record buyers for Mary Chapin Carpenter's muted rendition of "Passionate Kisses"--took seven years to record her 1988 self-titled record, and nobody complained; hell, if there's a knock on that gem, it's only that it's not as good as Car Wheels. Williams, once a Folkways artist whose acoustic blues sounded like some bastard hybrid between Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, has evolved into a country artist whose heart pumps to a rock and roll backbeat; a lesser musician might well have become, well, Bonnie Raitt.

But Williams is made of resilient, shrewd stuff: She writes deceptively plain poetry that reveals a dozen little broken-hearted truths between the lines, and she sings each song in a voice that might be mistaken for soft if it weren't for the occasional rough edges that split you open when you're not paying attention. A song like "Drunken Angel," about an Austin musician who pissed away talent and adoration till he died at the bottom of a bottle, could well have been an overwrought farewell. But Williams sings the lyrics ("Blood spilled from the hole in your heart/Over the strings of your guitar") with a little spit mixed in with the tears--she's not just sad, but angry and betrayed. Not since Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska has a singer delivered lyrics so perfectly; she pauses, whispers as though making up the words on the spot.

When Emmylou Harris shows up to sing harmony on "Greenville" or Williams throws in a ZZ Top reference to remind an old lover of better times or when she closes out the record in a gospel voice so thin and pretty, you can't help but stop and smile and wonder why no one makes records like this anymore. It's about love, the death of love, and the miles in between--familiar stuff; but Williams makes it all seem brand-new and unknown, even if the music is carved from the most ancient of wood.

--Robert Wilonsky


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