We are so out of touch,” sang Lucinda Williams on 2001’s ”Essence.” It’s a line that could double as a proud slogan for her label, Lost Highway — an imprint devoted to highbrow roots-rock and old-school country alien to the cyberbimbo mall of MTV, CMT, and mass-market radio. Yet after the megaplatinum success of its ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, a host of Grammy wins (most recently for aesthetic forebears Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash), and a spate of critically applauded records, Lost Highway is turning out to be something like music’s Miramax or Farrar, Straus and Giroux: a boutique brand deftly balancing art and commerce on a corporate scale. While the majors fumble through their economic and creative blight, Lost Highway is among the only encouraging stories out there.
Williams is the paradigmatic Lost Highway artist — a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll, steeped in the true grit of the blues and the prickly mythopoetic ambition of Bob Dylan. She’s earned endlessly glowing reviews. But what’s great about World Without Tears is that it’s not just another great Lucinda Williams record. A perfectly imperfect set, it’s looser, blowsier, and more what-the-hell? than anything she’s done. That’s not to say it’s less artful than her two masterpieces, ”Lucinda Williams” and ”Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” But where the latter often suggested Herculean effort was spent locating the precise millisecond to clip a slurred vowel, there’s an easy confidence on ”World” that lets the singer get, well, a bit freaky. There’s the death-metal-inspired Baptist minister of ”Atonement,” a nightmarish, John Lee Hooker-style stomp. And there’s not one but two rap-inflected oddities: ”Sweet Side” recalls Dylan-style talking blues with smoother flow and more melody, while the bleak song-poem ”American Dream” simultaneously refracts Springsteen’s ”Nebraska,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ”The Message,” and the Doors’ ”Riders on the Storm.” It shouldn’t work — at all — yet it does, held together by a razor-sharp band and possibly the best singing of Williams’ career.
”World” is also noisier and randier than ”Essence,” which stripped songs to skeletons and let Williams stretch her voluptuous phrasing. But ”Essence”’s sad, breathy longing is the jump-off point for a record largely about the blast-furnace luminosity of lust. Age is irrelevant with music this good, but it must be said: ”World” may be the most profoundly carnal record ever made by a woman of 50. On ”Ventura,” Williams moans, ”I wanna get swallowed up in an ocean of love” while pedal-steel waves lap at her hips. On ”Righteously,” she implores a reluctant lover to ”Just play me John Coltrane” while guitarist Doug Pettibone thrusts with Trane-like fortitude. And ”Those Three Days” is a smoldering after-the-affair anthem that channels seductive pain so vividly, you can almost feel the scorpions beneath the narrator’s skin. Could it be a radio hit? Sure, if the entire song didn’t hinge on Williams spitting out the line ”I have been so f — -in’ alone.” Somewhere, a corporate accountant gently weeps. But for now, it seems Williams has found safe harbor to make art her way.