For those acquainted with the Grammy-winning folk rock singer’s characteristic vocal drawl and sparse compositions, Lucinda Williams’ newest album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, won’t be a strikingly new listening experience. Throughout her nearly four-decade-long career, though, Williams’ unadorned musical narrative has never really demanded abrupt or needless stylistic changes. Where those common themes of loss, heartbreak, and despair would spiral into redundancy for many other artists, Williams’ distinction has come from her ability to revisit and not simply repeat the familiar. In that way, The Ghosts of Highway 20 provides a thematic continuance of the Louisiana native’s storytelling.
Though now with these seven songs, Williams foregoes the role of removed narrator, choosing instead to convey each story with an earnest introspection, resulting in some of her most powerfully vulnerable songs to date. Beginning with the line, “There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black,” the album is deceptively morose — much in the same way that last year’s Carrie & Lowell from Sufjan Stevens might be regarded as a solely mournful venture were it not for his ability to strike a balance between the reality of losing his mother and the fragility of clinging to hope and faith. Williams accomplishes a similar feat here by giving varied perspectives of loss and life without rutting the songs into overt sentimentality. Named after a stretch of Interstate 20 that runs from Georgia to Texas, The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a slight step away from 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone — an album where Williams found a sort of safe place within her songwriting, offering a more straightforward blues rock expression less given to the subdued nuance seen here. There’s no doubt that Williams has been able to emote, and loudly, all manner of anger and despondency. Much of her early material embodied a heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that even in its missteps seemed unabashedly sincere.
For artists, especially in the short timespan of 2016 so far, age is the inescapable muse. Though Williams’ age is obviously irrelevant in terms of what she’s capable of producing as a musician, the subject of mortality, especially her own, has never been so present and confrontational as it is here. Reading the word “haunting” in any description of music is likely to elicit an eye roll and deservedly so. More often than not, the attempt of an artist to evoke a personal response ends up a ham-fisted attempt to dictate emotion, leaving little room for autonomy on the part of the listener. In this regard, Williams succeeds on nearly every level.
For all its successes, the album occasionally misses the mark. The overwrought biblical allegory of “Death Came” works against what might otherwise be a subtly powerful look at substance abuse. There are other moments where the drone wears out its welcome, with a few songs that might benefit by cutting out a minute or two. Even with the album’s handful of misgivings, though, The Ghosts of Highway 20 never delves into what could have very easily become self-involved drivel. Williams avoids that pitfall by creating or relaying the truth of her own vulnerabilities through the lives of those characters on which each song focuses.
Williams’ unadulterated self-awareness and cautious retrospect are no more imposing than on the album’s title track. Starting the song’s nearly seven-and-a-half-minute running time, Williams’ voice, weathered and prayerful, echoes against minimal guitar before building into an appropriately rolling rhythm that speaks to the road itself and to the lives which exist in each song. Though Williams is no stranger to an effective narrative, rarely have her stories captured such a concrete portrayal of human experience at its most unsure moment: the end. However metaphorical the album’s title may be, each of its stories runs the common thread of a movement that is definitive, though that destination remains unknown. For Williams, embracing that fact is the only “saving grace” of the journey.
Essential Tracks: “The Ghosts of Highway 20”