Quick – what’s the most uplifting album you know with at least three songs about suicide on it? Well, if you didn’t answer Sweet Old World, you and I either don’t see eye-to-eye about Lucinda Williams’ gifts or you just haven’t heard it. Some people I know think Lucinda's a drag, but for me she's the opposite – someone whose experience with heartache and pain has made her feel her joy and love all the more acutely. And some people don’t know that she’d been recording for nearly 20 years before her breakthrough with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
On her earlier albums – one a 1979 album of covers and traditional songs where she shows off her taste and range and established herself as a solid singer/performer, two after that that she made eight years apart that are full of originals and established her as a great writer – she synthesizes as many strains of American roots music as she can fit into her songs. Blues, folk, country, rock and roll and many more – when she's on her game, she makes all of them work for her without kowtowing to any of them. But it was only with the record before this (Lucinda Williams, released four years before this 1992 classic, and reissued this week after being long out of print) that sparks of her real genius appeared in some songs. And this one’s even better, even with all the death and downtrodden folks on it.
So when she's singing about a relationship that coulda been but probably won't be, when she's singing about an abused kid grown up to be a mixed-up guy, when she's singing about a friend who committed suicide, the songs don't wallow in misery as they easily could have. She wants her listeners to know about this “sweet old world” we all live in; know that there’s pain and heartache but that these are not permanent conditions. Unlike some music that strives for uplift but doesn’t seem to have experienced anything real to buoy it, Lucinda’s got a great eye for the detail that lets you know she’s been there and made peace with things. And of course it helps that in addition to writing well about sad stuff, she can write equally enthusiastically and convincingly about "Hot Blood" and how much she loves the "Lines Around Your Eyes." And the way she puts these across is the same – with strong, heartfelt vocals that augment her melodies with simple, unforced beauty. So “Something About What Happens When We Talk” – one of her best ever – comes on in the lyrics like a lament for a relationship that didn’t happen, but the vocals make sure it isn’t sad about it, just wistful, full of thoughts of what could’ve been. And when she’s talking to her friend who killed himself, she simply catalog the little things that make life worth living and asks him directly “Didn’t you think you were worth anything?” The whole record makes me glad to be alive, just as she intended.
- Patrick Brown.