Lucinda Williams built her reputation as a songwriter, but it's the dense grain of her voice -- the slur and shiver, the crackle and drawl -- that imbues her lyrics with wider meaning. Confessionalism is the singer/songwriter's curse, but Williams' themes -- desire as ecstatic self-destruction and the private consolations found in nature and music -- rarely come off as solipsistic or indulgent. She never just tells what happened; she sings the way tragedy and joy feel. Over the years her voice has grown ever wilder, rougher and more desperate, as has her songwriting. She seems to be challenging the audience she finally gained with 1998's Car Wheels On a Gravel Road to follow her all the way down into her most extremely fucked-up, extremely beautiful interiors.
On her latest record, World Without Tears, Williams pukes and bleeds (a lot), gets bit by scorpions and slandered by gossips, tears her fingers on broken guitar strings and gets burned by yet another bad but destined desire. It's her loudest, raunchiest, strangest record. She tries gauzy vox-processing on "Fruits of My Labor," lets guitarist Doug Pettibone freak out like Jeff Beck on "Righteously," explores funk-conscious rhythms and soaks guitars in enough tremolo to make Daniel Lanois come. When she raps out streams of mystic sexual aggression on "Atonement," as if subverting her perfectionist rep, Williams makes Patti Smith seem studied by comparison and cuts the White Stripes at their grimiest. "Lean over the toilet bowl and throw up my confession," she sings on "Ventura." "Cleanse my soul of this hidden obsession." Read those lines and wince; hear the way Lucinda Williams sings them and never be the same again.