Lucinda Williams famously took six years to complete her masterpiece, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, recording it three separate times before deeming it worthy of release.
Abandoning that level of perfectionism was probably necessary for her sanity, so good for her for saying goodbye to all that. Since Car Wheels, she’s been downright prolific by Lucinda Williams standards, releasing four studio albums and a double-live.
However, the reduction in obsessiveness did not come without a price–none of her work since has matched the consistency of Car Wheels, or the two great albums that preceded it. But no matter–despite a slight decline, she’s four-for-four since then, her new album, Little Honey, included, which makes her seven-for-seven since her self-titled 1988 album. (I do not yet own the two folk albums she did very early in her career for Smithsonian Folkways.)
So let’s start on the new one by getting the problems out of the way. The second half of Little Honey is considerably weaker than the first. It opens with “Jailhouse Tears” a country-rock novelty that might have gotten over if it wasn’t a duet with Elvis Costello, woefully miscast as a heavy-drinking, drug-abusing, three-time loser–wasn’t Mike Ness available? This is followed by three plodders in a row, the best of which, the nearly nine minute(!) “Rarity,” doesn’t have a prayer of waking up dozing listeners despite an emotional performance and touching lyrics.
But there is so much good here, having to hit skip a couple of times is a small price to pay. The first half is terrific, hopping about effortlessly from the pop of opener “Real Love,” to the romantic “Circles and X’s,” to the word-to-the-wise “Little Rock Star” (who is likely also the subject of “Rarity”). The first half concludes with “If Wishes Were Horses” (she’d have a ranch), which Rolling Stone called “sublime.” I can’t think of a better word, so I’ll use that one–the song is sublime.
Listeners who make it through the tough patch on the second half are rewarded with “Plan to Marry,” where us-against-the-world, love-conquers-all lyrics are brutally undercut by a mournful, heart-in-tatters vocal. It’s devastating, but still, somehow, leaves a tiny ember of hope glowing.
Little Honey ends with, of all things, a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” and Lucinda Williams has once again given me a reason to show up day-and-date at the record store for her next album. Long may she run.
“Circles and X’s”:
“If Wishes Were Horses”: