Noted singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams’ rise to fame was slow and it wasn’t until the release of her third album in 1988 that she really made an impact. Since then, she has had a long list of hits including Still I Long for Your Kiss (from the film “The Horse Whisperer”), Changed the Locks and Steal Your Love. Over time, she has received numerous accolades for her music including three Grammy awards.
Williams has also made appearances on other artist’s recordings, including Kasey Chambers’ “Barricades and Brickwalls” (On A Bad Day), Elvis Costello’s “The Delivery Man” (There’s a Story in Your Voice) and most recently, provided backing vocals on Don Henley’s “Cass County” (Train in the Distance).
Now 63 years old, she returns with her twelfth studio album, “The Ghosts of Highway 20”. Despite having only been released earlier this week, the recording is already receiving rave reviews by critics and fans alike, something which caused me to have rather high expectations when it came to writing my own review.
Touted as a recording full of the tales of those Williams has met throughout her life “on Highway 20”, I was well prepared for a storyteller’s album: beautiful ballads told in a throaty vocal and backed by some skillful guitar playing. What I got was disappointing, to say the least.
Listening to “Ghosts of Highway 20” was a chore. Though there is no doubting the superiority of the music, with bass and drums played by David Sutton and Butch Norton respectively; the true-letdown on this album is Williams’ vocals. Gone is the understated sultriness for which Williams was once so well known, replaced by little more than a slur that makes the listener question her sobriety during recording.
True, the songs do feature some heart wrenching lyrics, such as Death Came (Death came/and took you away from this/Oh I miss you so, and I long to know/why death gave you his kiss) and Dust (There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black/and you don’t have to try to keep the tears back/Well, you don’t have to try to keep the tears back … Because you couldn’t cry even if you wanted to) but it was only upon further investigation that I was able to find out what they were. Deciphering them within the vocal whilst listening to the recording was almost impossible.
Definitely one for only the most dedicated of fans.
[Editor/Author Note: This review was originally written for Art of Sound Mag in 2016.]