WHEN Lucinda Williams released her breathtakingly brilliant eponymous first album in 1988, she revived the legendary Gram Parsons’ dream of creating cosmic country music. Williams, with her distinctive, lustrous drawl and her world-weary lyrics, was ideally suited to carrying the “alternative country” torch, with Emmylou Harris running out of steam and Steve Earle yet to hit his stride.
Since then Williams, driven by her unique brand of aggressive self-doubt and lyrical evocation of the landscape of the southern states of the USA, has crafted at least two classic albums in Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Now here’s a third. The Ghosts Of Highway 20, referencing the interstate road that runs from Texas to the Carolinas, taking in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi on the way, is a majestic journey through Williams’ past, filtered through the shattered remnants of lost loves and the fading American dream.
Crucial to this seminal album is Dust, based on a poem by her late father Miller Williams, who died last year. This includes the lines: “There’s a sadness so deep/ The sun turns black/And you don’t have to try to keep/The tears back”. While this deep-seated melancholy is a constant factor in The Ghosts Of Highway 20 (I have never heard such a mournful interpretation of a Springsteen song as Williams’ Factory), hope tries to break through in the achingly beautiful Close The Door On Love and the plaintive Faith And Grace, an epic meditation on mortality.
Ultimately, though, this hope gives way to the self-doubt, which was so in evidence when Lucinda Williams last played in York at the Grand Opera House and she mistook our appreciation for indifference. It is this eloquent uncertainty, however, which gives The Ghosts Of Highway 20 its strength and its coherence. This raw and heart-felt collection of new songs, some of which feel like old friends already, makes this a contender for Williams’ finest hour.