On her new album, Lucinda Williams asserts her legacy as a great American rock star
At 70, Lucinda Williams is, true to her meticulous ethic, ready to fine-tune her legend. In her 2023 memoir, Don't Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You, she resists the labels "Americana"and "alt-country," though she may as well be the mother of them, citing the creative limitations of genre pegs. Perhaps what else is true is that taken as a whole, her music refuses to be heard as a divergence, a subset, an offshoot from the main artery of rock and roll. Rather, much like the roots of rock music itself, the core sources of her sound — country, blues, folk — converge into the heart of it all, as if to say: she's not just a vein of rock and roll; she's in its blood.
For her 16th studio album Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart, Williams brought in producer Ray Kennedy (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Good Souls Better Angels) for a straightforward rock record shot through with bar band nostalgia ("Let's Get the Band Back Together," "Rock N Roll Heart"), alongside tender testimonies to a lifelong musician's road-worn inner compass. Unable to play guitar after a stroke in 2020, Williams shares writing credits with her husband and manager Tom Overby, as well features from other notable collaborators: Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Stinson, Margo Price, Angel Olsen and Jesse Malin (another beloved musician recovering from a severe stroke) who co-wrote three tracks, notably ones with the most New York character: "Let's Get the Band Back Together," "New York Comeback," and "Jukebox."
On Stories' songs of solitude, Williams is most emotionally uncompromising and astute (that is to say: most herself), as a bottoms-up rocker pensively picking the peeling vinyl off the busted bar stool upon which her inner voice perches. Capturing Williams in a mournful reckoning with maturity, "Last Call For The Truth" is a bloodshot, lonesome brood for lost youth, eyeing the neon vitality once found in her scene's "ragtag mystique" as it evaporates into the mist of an older tomorrow. The gruff meditation of "Jukebox," featuring Angel Olsen, brings to mind Danny O'Keefe's "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," if instead of our narrator's friends leaving him behind for Los Angeles, he was stuck at home in quarantine. The piercing sunset drive of "Stolen Moments" pays tribute to Tom Petty, from the point of view of a traveler gazing out the window suddenly struck by the memory of a friend — a familiar heart-pang for any LA motorist passing Ventura Boulevard. "Hum's Liquor," featuring the Replacements' Tommy Stinson and written about his brother, Bob — in fact, the album is dedicated to the late guitarist, "a true rock n roll heart" — paints an empathetic picture of wayward brilliance gone astray, creating a diptyque with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road's "Drunken Angel," about Blaze Foley, in the chapel of Williams' memorials to idiosyncratic musicians whose habits of addiction and of artistry became tragically intertwined.
By bringing iconic rockers into the studio, in person and in spirit, Williams uses Stories to draft a lineage to which she belongs, as both inheritor and peer, disciple and godmother to a specific vein of American rock and roll. As one of America's most revered songwriters, she hardly has to defend her influence; but with her memoir, and latest album, she seems to be posing the question, is she not also one of the great rockstars, too?
For those of us who take Williams' storytelling to heart, the single "Where the Song Finds Me" is a mystical encounter. Opening with Lanois-esque atmospherics building into a big, blue twilight of strings, Williams devotedly surrenders to the fickle magic of summoning the muse from the quotidian, evoking Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" in the way a sudden consciousness of legacy — both a blessing and a curse — begets the urge to create anew, nevertheless. The album closes with the heart-swelling "Never Fade Away," a softly anthemic proclamation of creative perseverance through staleness and struggle. In these sunset years, Williams isn't fading away, because true rockers never do. It's just her golden hour, and she's glowing in the light.
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