Nobody goes to Lucinda Williams for pick-me-ups. The alt-country queen of twang and bummer isn't here to lift spirits or ease minds, and anyone familiar with her work knows better than to search it for simple comforts. From her debut in 1979 to 2001's "Essence," Williams has poetically groaned and growled about a broken world, one filled with loneliness and unrequited lust, boredom and love undone. Even when she rouses herself to a beat that swings, it's to squelch the hum of anguish that seems to be forever ringing in her ears.
But even by her own standards of gloom, "World Without Tears," her seventh album, is a big, bleak downer. Now 50 and recently relocated from Austin to Los Angeles, Williams isn't finding much cheer in either middle age or added sunshine. "World" is at moments so grim that it seems a parody of grimness, and the music -- by Williams and a gifted trio of veterans -- is every bit as overcast as the lyrics. If "World" were a weather forecast instead of an album, it would be time to build an ark.
There's beauty to be mined from despair, of course, and Williams has mined gorgeous hunks of it for much of her career. You heard it on her 1998 breakthrough album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," when she levitated over the prison walls between her and her man on "Concrete and Barbed Wire." And you heard it in the hope for domestic bliss she yearned for on classics such as "Passionate Kisses." There might have been an undertow of misery through it all, but it was a current you were happily swept into, either because the ride felt good or because Williams could bring such authentic pluck and poignant vulnerability to the country blues. She was a survivor, blinking at the void with a lit cigarette and a modern psalm.
Starting with "Essence," however, Williams decided her high-octane agony could be the star of this show, rather than just the fuel that jump-starts and sustains it. With "World," Williams's unhappiness has become a fetish. Either she thinks we expect her to mope in verse and doesn't want to let us down, or she needs to stop breaking those pills in half.
The opener, "Fruits of My Labor," finds Williams flattened by a breakup and the realization that heading west has failed to relieve her heartache. There she sits, in a room with the shades drawn to keep out the light, crying as she remembers the scent of her ex, her voice a lazy, tipsy rasp. And that's the fun song! Well, not really, but there's much here that exceeds "Fruits" if you're measuring in metric tons of woe.
On "Ventura," neither soup nor friendship nor music nor a shower can stave off an unnamed obsession that has her vomiting "her confession" into a toilet. During "Those Three Days" scorpions crawl under Williams's dress and bite her flesh as she bitterly recalls the empty words of endearment from a hit-and-run lover. She chokes on the poison of her thoughts on "Minneapolis," denounces gossips on "People Talkin' " ("Livin' is full of misery and pain, somebody call you a dirty name") and empathizes with a child abuse victim on "Sweet Side." ("Hands that would feed you when you were 2 were the same hands beat you black and blue.") There's a spoken-word tune here, "American Dream," that in vocal style recalls Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The narrator here is a Native American so beset by trouble and so disillusioned that she sums up her lot with the refrain "Everything is wrong."
It gets a little numbing, this relentless torment. The sweet vibrato of Doug Pettibone's guitar and the quiet shuffle of Jim Christie's drumming give "World" an elegantly timeless feel, like a roadhouse band recorded before the crowd arrives. But Williams's usually sturdy sense of melody and pace fails her here. You wind up feeling like you're eavesdropping on someone's breakdown. The standout exception is "Overtime," a drowsy gem that Patsy Cline would have loved. It will remind listeners of Williams's amazing gifts when she puts the song ahead of her sorrow.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
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