Album Review: The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams
Excellent, Based on 14 Critics
Paste Magazine - 93 Based on rating 9.3/10
In the late ‘80s, Lucinda Williams emerged as the patron saint of busted love and broken dreams. Lucinda Williams and Sweet Old World established her as a writer not afraid of the pain. Honoring her father, poet Miller Williams, she’s put the scalpel to the bone with West, Blessed, World Without Tears, Essence, her breakthrough Car Wheels on A Gravel Road—and last year’s Americana Album of the Year, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
“I know this road like the back of my hand,” Lucinda Williams assures us on the title track of her superb new album, Ghosts of Highway 20. On her 12th studio recording since her 1979 debut, Ramblin’, the singer-songwriter takes the wheel of memory for a trip down the eponymous highway, a real, nearly 200-mile interstate that cuts through the northern part of Louisiana, her home state, and an interior, emotional route mapped by sorrow and pain, but also by nostalgia and fond recollection. “It is literally a map of my life in a lot of ways,” Williams has remarked.
Lucinda Williams's second double album in two years is another fruitful collaboration with soundscaping guitarists Greg Leisz and Bill Frissell. But there's a noticeable shift between this album and the last, and not just because The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a concept album while 2014's Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (only loosely organized around a poem by Williams's late father) is not. The difference is in the songs, which return Williams to an expressively melancholic mode most thought she'd abandoned since finding the most steady romantic partner of her life in producer Tom Overby.
Calling her own shots seems to agree with Lucinda Williams. While the singer/songwriter has long had a reputation for taking her time between albums, she's back with another double-disc set, The Ghosts of Highway 20, just a year-and-a-half later. She launched her own label with Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone in the fall of 2014. In many ways, The Ghosts of Highway 20 feels like a companion piece to Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone in its emotionally direct approach and willingness to let the songs play themselves out at their own pace.
With blowsy, parched vocals, languorous tempos, straggly melodies and flyaway guitar lines, Lucinda Williams' 12th album feels a little like an alt-country picture of Dorian Gray. You could also call it a portrait of the artist as an older woman: time-scarred, unapologetic, but still potent. Yeah, it's literary; yeah, it's the polar opposite of cosmetic-surgery pop.
Give Lucinda Williams’ new album The Ghosts of Highway 20 even a cursory listen and it’s quickly apparent the veteran songwriter has death on her mind. With its first few guitar harmonics ringing like church bells, album opener “Dust” sets the mortality-stricken tone for the record with the refrain “even your thoughts are dust,” a line Williams borrowed from her father Miller Williams, an Arkansas-born poet (best known for writing Bill Clinton’s second-term inaugural poem) who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in January 2015. It should come as no surprise, then, that Williams is a bit preoccupied.
Lucinda Williams is known best for the crags of her voice, an idiosyncratic instrument capable of curling, souring, or (in its own peculiar way) soaring as the song demands. She, too, is an inarguable pioneer of what has become Americana, with her sophisticated songwriting bound to composite foundations of blues and honky-tonk, gospel and soul, folk and rock since the start of her career nearly 40 years ago. But the single unifying thread for Williams’ very circuitous career might be her own resilience.
Lucinda Williams is still one of the great American mavericks. Back in the late 80s, she brought a new rock following to country music when she signed to Rough Trade and helped to launch that hybrid genre, Americana. Her new set mixes country influences with gospel and blues, and is notable both for the strength of her highly personal songwriting, her weathered, slurred and defiant vocals, and the inventive arrangements, featuring atmospheric, brooding guitar textures from Greg Leisz and the ever-adventurous Bill Frisell.
For those acquainted with the Grammy-winning folk rock singer’s characteristic vocal drawl and sparse compositions, Lucinda Williams’ newest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, won’t be a strikingly new listening experience. Throughout her nearly four-decade-long career, though, Williams’ unadorned musical narrative has never really demanded abrupt or needless stylistic changes. Where those common themes of loss, heartbreak, and despair would spiral into redundancy for many other artists, Williams’ distinction has come from her ability to revisit and not simply repeat the familiar.
'I am a bit of a hick. My poetry shows it, and I like that fact. I enjoy Mozart and country music.' That was the assessment of Miller Williams when asked why he didn’t move from the Arkansas hills to one of the big cities, cultural epicentres and fully adopt a lifestyle more befitting of an esteemed poet and academic. That contrast between high-brow intellect and back country roots is something his daughter Lucinda Williams has always seemed to revel in too.
The lesser-known cousin to the far more famous Route 66, Interstate 20 spans the southern portion of the U.S., cutting a 1,500 mile swath from Texas to South Carolina. Like the more famous highway to the north, it inspires tales of towns and travellers who have been intersected due to its routing, bringing to bear distinctive portraits of life in America’s most rural environs. That’s the backdrop for Lucinda Williams’ latest opus, a stirring series of 14 songs spread across two CDs, one which captures the troubled perspectives that accompany hard times and tattered circumstance.
Somewhere around 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, Lucinda Williams and her fantastic backing band hit a deep, dusty groove, and The Ghosts Of Highway 20 settles into it further. Williams gives her songs more room to breathe than ever before, opening up vast, cinematic visions of the highway and land that inspired them. The title track nails it best, conjuring spectres and a hallucinatory, southern Gothic soundscape, bone-chilling at its peak.
For some, albums such as Lucinda Williams' self-titled third LP in 1988 and/or its two follow-ups, Sweet Old World (1992) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ('98), would be highlights enough to make a career. Instead, nearing four decades since her debut, the onetime local continues taking listeners to places unexplored. It's easy to argue that her previous release, 2014 double-disc Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, brought the 63-year-old song whisperer to a new plateau, a remarkable achievement in a life overflowing with them.
Lucinda Williams knows how to ram her negativity down your throat, and offers a mighty flood of it on this mournfully overwrought double album. Apart from a few positive rays of light (”Doors of Heaven” and the 13-minute improv of “Faith & Grace”), the set mostly sinks into hellishly dark waters drawn from her experiences along a highway that runs from South Carolina to Texas. There’s a cutting strain of “Southern secrets still buried deep, rooting and restless ’neath the cracked concrete,” as she sings in the gripping title track.