Pitchfork do a lot of things wrong but their article written a few years back about Lucinda Williams was an illuminating assessment of her career, expertly analysing why she remains one of the most overlooked and underrated artists in music today. In the constant search for new voices, new talent, new narratives we don’t stop to appreciate those who have been consistently producing quality music for years. The writer asked the simple question: why go looking for the new Lucinda Williams when she’s still out there playing live and releasing some of the best work of her career?
I often think about the disappointing late career output of singers like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and it’s hard not to conclude that success has allowed them to become indulgent. What’s unfair to me is that someone like Lucinda Williams is still releasing stunning songs and albums and yet has barely a breath of their recognition. Although maybe it’s because she hasn’t had the same acclaim as some of her male contemporaries that she has had to keep her quality at such a high level.
This recording and reworking of her 1992 album Sweet Old World may seem like an unusual choice but, when you consider her career, it makes sense. The original album received critical approval on release but she didn’t break through commercially until a few years afterwards with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which has since overshadowed her earlier work. This reworking helps to draw attention to an album of songs that should be remembered as classics of American music. Some of these versions are welcome and familiar, some are entirely changed but they are all brought back to life with energy and power.
For me Lucinda’s latter career voice is a gift – sounding like a beat up vintage car, with smoke occasionally drifting out of the bonnet, sometimes you’re not sure if it’s going to start at all but then when it goes it fucking goes, and knows every turn in the road. For those listeners new to Lucinda I fear this rough diamond of a voice may be a barrier. To them I say: go back to the original album first. Listen to her journey through life to appreciate how she came to have this voice of gravel and dirt.
Lucinda’s father, poet Miller Williams, died from Alzheimer’s disease in January 2015. For anyone, especially a man of words, to suffer such a death was a devastatingly cruel fate. You wonder if that loss has strengthened her own need to honour memory and keep the past alive. To sing these songs again is a way to fight against forgetting, to stop your best work disappearing into dust.
The album opens with Six Blocks Away, a song about unrequited love and rejection. Lucinda’s ability to sell a story song remains her strength. She understands the suffering of others and, even years later, her empathy for the heartbroken is clear. Musically this one retains the jangle pop guitars, although there’s a depth to the sound now that wasn’t there before. Respect is due to Lucinda’s band for their performance on this reworking: guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, drummer Butch Norton and producer Greg Leisz also contributes guitar work.
There is a subtle reordering of the songs on this album and Memphis Pearl is given a more prominent spot in the track listing. This version echoes the bluesy style of her recent excellent live performances and is deservedly moved into the spotlight. There is a deliberate step away from the light country sound she created in 1992, and the removal of the fiddle part on this song underlines this. She appears much more comfortable on these versions where the country elements are replaced with a straight blues and rock sound. Prove My Love and Something About What Happens When We Talk show her unparalleled ability to get to the heart of relationships. Some of the current crop of mainstream country stars should do themselves a favour and record a Lucinda song or two. She has so many unpolished love song gems that would suit being shined for new audiences.
The title track Sweet Old World is a lament to a friend who committed suicide. Now when she sings the song it’s slower and tinged with more sadness, as though the older she’s got the more devastating such a death has become. At this point I’m reminded of my favourite song from her album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone called When I Look At The World. On that song she addresses all the struggles and failures she’s endured in life. Age gives her insight into suffering and pain but, despite everything, she still sees the glory of just living, no matter how miserable it is. That central core of optimistic humanism is what makes Lucinda such an admirable lyricist and artist.
The songs Little Angel, Little Brother and Pineola have long been fan favourites and they are probably the two best songs on this album. Her song for her brother seems even more poignant now, especially when listened to alongside the other songs she’s written for him – Place in My Heart & Are You Alright? Time does not solve these problematic relationships but she still tries to find value in them. The autobiographical story of the aftermath of suicide on Pineola feels as brutal as the first time I heard it. The meatier guitars give this even more power and there’s a hint of anger too – as if she can’t understand how anyone can be expected to just go living a normal life after such trauma.
The new versions of Lines Around Your Eyes and Hot Blood are definite improvements on the originals, rockier and more freewheeling. The song ‘He Never Got Enough Love‘ has been rewritten and renamed Drivin’ Down a Dead End Street. This is a haunting elegy to a doomed young man. As she sings these stories she offers no cruel judgements, only sympathetic understanding. She’s knows the dead end streets can trap anyone. Her father wrote of the importance of having ‘compassion for everyone you meet’ and that’s evident in every note Lucinda sings.
The album also includes four additional bonus songs, which hark back to the same time in her career. Her cover of Wild and Blue is a stand out and she finishes with Dark Side of Life – a surprising return to a ‘country’ sound, with pedal steel and real twang in the vocal. This life of darkness she acknowledges her own. Spending time in the shadows with Lucinda’s music can only bring us all further into the light.
Her father read a poem called ‘Of History & Hope‘ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, which finished with the line ‘if we can truly remember, they will not forget’. You honour the past to shape the future. Lucinda’s fire is still burning bright and she deserves to be celebrated. This reworking proves that Sweet Old World, like Lucinda herself, is too cool to be forgotten.