Lucinda Williams: She Breaks My Heart

I was a teenager in the 1960s, so of course I was a consummate Beatlemaniac. Through the ensuing years, a few other musical artists appeared whom I have consistently held in very high regard -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello -- though none ever quite reached the pinnacle of my personal hierarchy where the Beatles had always rested. It got to the point where I was sure that no one ever would.

That began to change only a few years ago. As I was browsing through the CD collection in the library of one of the community colleges at which I teach, I came across an album titled (at least, at the time, I thought it was the title) Car Wheels on a Grave. Such a dark, perverse, surrealistic image intrigued me, as did the artist, Lucinda Williams. I was familiar with her name because, in a New York City record store in the early 90s, I had found a benefit CD for her friend Victoria Williams, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Lucinda sang only one song on that album, and since I am not a follower of the Grammy Awards, I forgot about her until she appeared in 2004 on Elvis Costello's CD, The Delivery Man, where she joined Elvis on a rousing duet titled "There's a Story in Your Voice," one of the album's highlights. As I write about this now, it dawns on me what a fitting title that was for my re-introduction to Lucinda.

When I got home and took out her CD, I realized that some librarian had covered part of the jewel case with a cataloging sticker, obscuring the true name, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I thought, "Gravel road, not grave?" Man, what a disappointment: a level of intrigue had vanished. But what the heck -- I had the CD, so I put it on. About thirty seconds after I pressed "Play," I was captivated by the most stirring voice I had heard in many a year. Lucinda's expressive quality and tone just knocked me out; she touched me as no other singer had before. I hadn't witnessed such depth of emotion in a pop vocalist since I'd been floored by Bob Dylan in the mid-60s. Lucinda's voice could be described as smoky or gravelly, I suppose; it is definitely not smooth, but there is no artifice in it, nothing phony. It is beautiful. I had heard people discuss "honesty" in singing, but that kind of talk had always struck me as abstract nonsense. Pretty soon, I knew exactly what they were talking about. All it took was hearing "Lake Charles," a tender encomium to a lost loved one and a beloved place.

Many of Lucinda's songs are about her home state, Louisiana, and their poignancy is unmatched. The beautiful "Lake Charles" is a catch-in-the-throat lament about an unnamed man who, although born across the border in East Texas, always said he was from Lake Charles (Lucinda's hometown) because that was "the place that he loved." Lucinda conveys a potent blend of sadness and desperate hope that is absolutely soul-wrenching, and her band's spare accompaniment enhances the purity of the emotion. The song brings tears to my eyes each time I hear it.

Lucinda's songwriting is simple yet elegant, touching, sometimes sweet (but not saccharine), concise, and insightful. The musical arrangements are unencumbered by fancy studio tricks; none of her songs are "over-produced." Her style has been described as "raw" and "too country for rock and too rock for country," a pretty accurate assessment. Lucinda is a unique artist, one who is hard to categorize because she -- like her friend, Elvis Costello -- is always growing, always expanding her musical world.

Her songs possess a combination of frankness and maturity that is rare in popular music, and the sensual quality of numbers like "Those Three Days" and "World Without Tears" (from the album World Without Tears) will rip your heart out with plaintive lyrics like "If we lived in a world without tears ... how would broken find the bones?" She does not hold back; she sings about a mature woman's needs and a mature woman's pain. There is a fearless quality to her honesty that is truly inspirational, and the more I explored Lucinda's work, the better things got. Eventually I heard the Essence album. I guess if I had to choose, I'd pick Essence as my favorite -- because of five songs.

"I Envy the Wind" is the most beautiful ballad I have ever heard. It's impossible to bring a song across with just the lyrics, but I will quote a few lines because they might give you at least a vague idea: "I envy the wind / That whispers in your ear / That howls through the winter / That freezes your fingers ... "

The title song, "Essence," is a dark metaphorical meditation on the lure and the dangers of obsessive love: "Baby, sweet baby, I wanna feel your breath / Even though you like to flirt with death." It's almost scary to listen to this because Lucinda sings it with such conviction that it's clear she knows exactly what she is singing about. And "Reason to Cry" is a gorgeous song about lost love that cuts just as deep as "Essence" but in a much different way.

In "Bus to Baton Rouge," Lucinda sings about a grown woman who has gone back to visit her childhood home, which is filled with sad, bittersweet, and even painful memories. She has realized that she must confront her lingering ambiguous emotions to have any hope of attaining psychological stability. The implied point of the song is that if all her memories were happy ones, she wouldn't have had to make the trip. The chorus is deceptively simple ("I took a bus to Baton Rouge"), and the way it is sung is ingenious: the words are drawn out and the melody is superbly melancholic to emphasize that traveling by bus is probably the loneliest and most miserable way to make a heartfelt journey -- one that must be solitary and pensive because of its very nature.

And then there is "Blue." This song is truly remarkable on several levels. Lucinda discusses matters of the heart and soul with undaunted frankness and the wisdom gained from clear-sighted confrontations with the realities of life. In "Blue," she is able to translate this acute understanding into heartbreaking laconic poetry. I won't quote any lines here because their meaning will not come through without her voice behind them. This is one of those rare songs that suggest more than can possibly be said in words. Sometimes words -- any words -- are just too weak to do it on their own, and only a voice perfectly suited for a song can provide what's needed. There are songs that we either get or we don't, and if we do connect with them, they are the ones that become our favorites. "Blue" is one of those songs, and it is my favorite, having eclipsed both Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" and the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." And those two had been my favorites for almost 40 years!

Perhaps there is something else that contributes to my liking Lucinda so much. Most people's favorite music is the stuff they listened to when they were teenagers or young adults. The other artists I mentioned earlier all arrived on the scene at that time in my life. What a surprise I had when I discovered new and exciting music at the age of 55. Lucinda has been writing and singing great songs since 1980, and she's almost as old as I am! How could I have been unaware of her for all those years? As an old friend of mine used to say, sometimes you find a diamond in a coal bin. Well, Lucinda is my diamond.

And the dark surrealism that I first expected when I mistook Gravel for Grave finally appeared on Lucinda's 2007 CD, West. The stark wail of spare guitar work and the lonely plaint of a sad violin infuse "Unsuffer Me" and "Rescue" with strangely evocative emotional power. In the former, Lucinda asks for fulfillment, enlightenment, and the unnameable assuagement sought by all. In the latter, her premise that there is no rescue from the pain and misery of life is mitigated by the possible resolution that rests in our mature acceptance of them: "He can't change ... the thunderstorms within your purity." And I love the beautiful irony of "Learning How to Live" because Lucinda knows -- as we all do -- that we'll never really learn to our satisfaction.

On the rare occasions when Lucinda sings other people's material, she brings to it a special presence, as in her haunting renditions of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart" and Ed and Patsy Bruce's "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." I never sensed the powerful emotions packed inside of these songs until I heard Lucinda sing them. Her latest recording is a marvelous version of "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" on a tribute album to Shel Silverstein.

It's funny how coincidences happen. One day, I was poking around on iTunes and came across one of those celebrity playlists that I usually avoid looking at. This one was Jim Carrey's. For some unfathomable reason, I was curious -- so I clicked the mouse and was delighted to see a Lucinda song on his list. The celebrity usually offers a brief reason for including each of the songs. Next to Lucinda's "Over Time" (one of Elvis Costello's favorites, by the way), Jim Carrey had written, "She breaks my heart." And I thought, "Yeah, man, that about says it all."