Lucinda Williams doesn’t sound like anybody else, yet she reminds all of us of somebody we know. Hers is the voice of the person who crawls into bed at 3 a.m., sleeplessness slicing it to ribbons, whiskey dulling its edges. On her darkly brilliant new two-disc The Ghosts of Highway 20, Williams’ voice—weathered by experience and crackling with pain— evokes a mood so real you can almost taste it.
In the hands of Williams and her tight- as-a-tourniquet band, including guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton, the Deep South and its people and places come alive. Twelve of the 14 songs were informed by the experiences and mood of Highway 20, which slashes through the region from Texas to South Carolina. On the brooding title track, steel guitar and unrelenting percussion (played with brushes, to haunting effect) build a somber atmosphere, Williams observing, “I know this road like the back of my hand.” I listened to this album while hurtling across a lonely highway in the dark on a passenger bus, and I swear it felt like a soundtrack written just for that night.
“Place in My Heart” is a lilting two- step that captures both sweetness and pain. And “Can’t Close the Door on Love” manages to sound slow-dance- tender and vaguely menacing, with provocative guitar licks dancing atop Williams’ warning: “You can’t close the door on our love.” The musicians show restraint and pacing honed over decades and know when to hit the throttle—the swinging “Bitter Memory”—and when to ease off the gas, as on the unhurried and moody “Louisiana.” The latter is one of many songs that show off Williams’ gift for phrasing, calling to mind Frank Sinatra in her ability to stretch a word just so or leave just the right space between syllables. Perhaps this is a side effect of being raised by a noted poet and literature professor, father Miller Williams. On “Louisiana,” she delivers every line with a precision that sounds kicked-back but is anything but, her pauses remarkably effective as she sings, “So hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.”
Throughout “Ghosts,” Williams stretches herself with complex arrangements and styles. “Doors of Heaven” has a rabble-rousing gospel vibe, while “Faith and Grace” could be heard in a jazz club, with an almost improvisational arrangement. As delicious as the playing is, however, the star of these songs—as always with Williams—is the words. Her lyrics would work as poems or even chapters in a Southern-soaked novel in the Faulkner vein. On song after song, lyrics leap from the speakers, Williams painting pictures of slamming screen doors, scorned lovers, and achingly desolate nights alone. “I’ve seen the face of hell/I know that place pretty damn well,” she sneers on “If There’s a Heaven.” On the scorching “Bitter Memory,” a had-it-up-to-here Williams promises, “Let me show you to the door, bitter memory.” And in what is surely the most memorable lyric, on “Death Came,” she mourns, “Death came and gave you his kiss.”
Growled in Williams’ voice, raw and ragged, even a kiss from death can sound like a seduction.