The cognoscenti are wigging. “How did a 45-year-old ‘neurotic diva’ with one foot in Faulkner’s South and one foot in Garth’s make the year’s best album?” wonders a headline in Spin . “Perfect,” declares critic Robert Christgau in the July 9-23 Rolling Stone . “Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette could learn a few things from [her],” prescribes Details . After June 30, when Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) appears, publications with shorter lead times will concur with these exceptionally pleased magazines. Here, without a doubt, is the print media’s pop record phenom of the summer of ’98.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road , Ms. Williams’ sixth album, has been a while coming. Originally, it was to appear on producer Rick Rubin’s Los Angeles-based American Records. But when Mr. Rubin changed his major-label affiliation from Warner Brothers to Sony, Ms. Williams found her album release stalled. Last April, Danny Goldberg, president of Mercury Records, purchased it from American. “She’s been accused of taking her time with records,” Mr. Goldberg understated the other afternoon. “But at least a year of this was not her. It was the biz.”
A touchiness-that kind of raging hypersensitivity frequently present in people brilliant at what they do-forms as much a part of the Lucinda legacy as magnetic songwriting and concert appearances. Over the years, Ms. Williams has chosen to sit on the bench rather than run plays called by record-industry coaches whom she judged misguided or, often, incompetent. She has proved to be as vigilant about mixes, for example, as a Chemical Brother. Even veteran members of the Americana-crazed Lucinda cult get touchy. At a George Jones recording session a few years back, I appalled Emmylou Harris with a mild confession that Ms. Williams’ recordings didn’t have quite enough juice for my pophead ears.
“She’s clearly an inner-directed artist,” said Mr. Goldberg, who’s known for his past associations with Nirvana and Jewel, and his current embrace of Hanson, and who thinks of himself as “a mainstream kind of guy.” “So many records, including ones that I’ve been involved with and have done well, tend to come from the outside in, where you know there are really talented people sort of cerebrally taking in other records, and the marketplace, and the public-you know, putting themselves into it, but there’s an element of calculation. She’s someone who’s coming from within her own heart.”
That writers might love Ms. Williams only makes sense, Mr. Goldberg said. “The writing she engages in is part of a certain tradition of extremely subtle, deeply nuanced observations of life which are more associated with great literature than they are with great songwriting,” he said. “Because so much of her work is driven by her words, among the first people to be affected by it are people who write words.” Ms. Williams is, in fact, the daughter of the poet Miller Williams, who read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration; her father continues to be, as she told Spin , her mentor. She grew up in South America and on various Southern campuses where Mr. Williams taught.
Unlike, say, opera fans, who can accept anything from the noble to the pedestrian to the outright nutty as platforms out of which great music can arise, rock critics aren’t so forgiving. Indeed, the Dylan tradition reserves its loftiest praise for what it deems well-written literary vehicles, and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road qualifies in a breeze. Its 13 songs document the vagaries of love and personal values as they fester and make themselves felt in Ms. Williams’ exotically singular narrators in distinct Southern places. Ms. Williams carefully conceives her collection this way, giving songs titles like “Lake Charles” and “Greenville”-two of the album’s top-notch moments-as well as the climactic “Jackson”; various other local bars, bodies of water and towns appear, plus fences, cars, references to country and blues and rock stars, and, of course, sex.
Like Peter Taylor puzzling over the tiny distinctions that distinguish Memphis from Nashville in his novel A Summons to Memphis , Ms. Williams gives you the idea she could go on forever about the differences between her various settings, that to her they might as well be Des Moines, Calcutta and Rio. But of course she doesn’t. Instead, in her rib-joint naturalism, ever so slightly punk-inflected and tending toward the Gothic, she boils everything down to essentials; she’s as interested as Martin Amis is in trimming, twisting and tweaking a vernacular style until it flies sky-high.
“Once we rode together in a metal firecracker,” she begins in “Metal Firecracker,” “You told me I was your queen/ You told me I was your bi-ker.” In “Right in Time,” the record’s big opener, Ms. Williams follows a woman as she drifts from her kitchen to TV to bedroom, lost in thoughts of an absent man who moves “right in time” with her. “I take off my watch/ And my earrings/ My bracelets/ And everything,” she sings, “Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling/ Oh oh oh my baby.”
Understand: This is pop record-making at some kind of new singer-songwriter height, perfectly plotted, timed, rhythmed and delivered. Lucinda Williams now has affect to burn. On her own strict and loose terms, she’s up there in the Whitney Houston ether of skillful, intelligent sonic manipulation.
The crucial trick, though, isn’t the writing. It’s more of a pophead thing: It’s the way she sings. Last year, Ms. Williams sang co-lead on Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast in Bed” for an album by 60′s Mussel Shoals songwriter Donnie Fritts, Everybody’s Got a Song (Oh Boy). She really got into those close-up Springfieldian breath strokes and sensuous, lingered-over phrase endings, and on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road she continues to luxe-up her own unique voice in that way, layering a Bono-like urgency over that. She pulls off the most dynamic vocal reinvention of its kind since Tina Turner discovered nuance on 1984′s Private Dancer .
Some credit for this goes to country maverick Steve Earle and veteran studio-man Ray Kennedy, who produced Ms. Williams under the name the Twangtrust. For her, they’ve micromanaged rootsy singer-songwriter settings crisper and more colorful than those Rosanne Cash sweated through on 1990′s Interiors . (Roy Bittan, keyboardist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, oversaw subsequent rounds of recording.) “Can’t Let Go,” for example, sounds like an old Judds tune, just dug up, still kicking and alive. But of course, no one sings like this on pop records unless he or she wants to get heard real bad. A while ago, a record executive trying to sign Ms. Williams to another record label asked her what she made of “Passionate Kisses,” a song she wrote that Mary Chapin Carpenter-a singer-songwriter with all of Ms. Williams’ literary yearnings but little of her ’65 Mustang élan-made into a country hit. As the exec remembers it, Ms. Williams said, “Damn, it could have been me on the radio.” That’s where she belongs.