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Lucinda Williams
World Without Tears
Lost Highway

You think you understand my pain? You can't feel my pain, friend. You know nothing about pain.

This is pain: Admitting that this thing with Lucinda Williams is just not working out. That you've loved her much — perhaps not well, but with great intensity and good intention. And that you convinced yourself into believing you still loved her, after hearing World Without Tears (Lost Highway) the first couple of times.

How could you have been so wrong?

You heard the deep, suffering drawl on "Fruits of My Labor," and thought yes, Lucinda's singing from a deep, suffering place in the soul with which you could thoroughly identify, and which you thought only a singer like James Carr could reach, maybe twice in a lifetime. You heard the rap cadence — hip-hop, hooray! — of "Righteously," and immediately thought, my, has my sweet angel really spread her wings. Especially when she rhymes "Be my lover don't play no game/ Just play me John Coltrane." Well, who wouldn't want to be the first critic to get that ne plus ultra of alt-country lyrics into print? Find a review that doesn't mention that line as an example of Lucinda's genius and you'll see a critic that's whiffing on a fastball right down the middle of the plate.

You heard "Ventura" and wanted to be with her, in a motel room facing the ocean, in the shower, to be there for her when she sings: "I wanna get swallowed up in/ An ocean of love." You heard the electric guitars surge, Lucinda riding on her Crazy Horse, and you said, yes! Lucinda has gotten beyond the brittle, maddening, single-minded introversion of the dreary, endless winter that was Essence (2001). True, World Without Tears wasn't obviously perfect, the way Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was perfect, but we've all grown in the five years since then. What we seek now is not spiritual perfection, but spiritual progress.

Then we reflected on the Lucinda songs that really made us happy, that made us fall in love in the first place: Those wicked, wise winks from the other side of the room, like "Lines Around Your Eyes" from Sweet Old World, (Chameleon, 1992). (Leftover Salmon's version is the best thing that Boulder jam band ever did, by a Rocky Mountain mile).

But then it stopped. The pleasures of World Without Tears evaporated with each listen, like the only way into that ocean of love was a jump off a cliff. The slurred lyrics of "Fruits of My Labor" seemed less like authentic Louisiana feeling and more like an imitation of Georgia Sea Island singers emoting in their native Gullah dialect. You listened more closely to the words of "Ventura," and realize she's singing about vomiting as purification, and suddenly you wonder how you got yourself stuck in the Bates Motel with this ... psycho.

"Sweet Side" went sour, too. At first one bathes in the hot tub of her unconditional love. "You get defensive at every turn/ You're overly sensitive and overly concerned," she sings, and you sigh: She understands me so well! Then you realize that you've changed, or are struggling to change, that you don't dwell in that dark place anymore. "I've seen you throwing up when your stomach hurt," the song continues, and you wonder if Lucinda's not just a little hung up on the barfing thing. A few songs later, in "Minneapolis," comes this: "You're a bad pain in my gut," and you go get a towel, the Lysol, and some Pepto-Bismol, just in case she decides to heave again.

The ballad "Overtime" sounds like it has the potential to be a standard of unrequited longing, but overlaid with more reverb than any guitar track since Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk," it begins to grate.

"Atonement" has a real kick, a poetic free-fall worthy of the Lizard King, the band vamping like The Doors. Not bad at all, until you think, maybe it's all about the scene in "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta has to thump the adrenalin-filled hypodermic needle into Uma Thurman's near-lifeless chest to bring her back from the O-Dead. If only Gram Parsons' death was just a scene in a movie; Lucinda seems haunted by a restless spirit.

She remains utterly, excessively self-involved. Listening to World Without Tears is like making out with a beautiful girl who stops after each kiss to ask, "What are you thinking?" Recalling a fling she thought would last in "Those Three Days," she's at the brink of cold-turkey madness: "Scorpions crawl across my screen/ Make their home beneath my skin." She's the girl who wants you to love her, but will stalk and destroy you if you ever leave. In the Steve Earle-boots wearing "American Dream," she takes victimhood to an artful extreme, and in the title song wonders, "How would broken find the bones?" Lucinda has become our lady of perpetual suffering, lost in her own longing, misery, and sacrifice. I probably I still love her. But right now it's better for me to go.

by Wayne Robins

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