In the pairing of Lucinda Williams and Neil Young some will find fated dreams, others perplexing irritations. As much binds the two artists as divides them -- and the same holds true for their fans. Williams (pictured) and Young are marvelously screwed-up, willfully dissatisfied geniuses. They write ferociously personal, often hermetically sealed songs; onstage their voices break in the wake of the ghosts they summon. "People let me tell you, it sent a chill up and down my spine/When I picked up the telephone and heard that he died out on the mainline." It's the voice of fact: black and white and the most brutal blue. "See what you lost when you left this world? This sweet old world"; Williams sings with that voice, too. As they've aged (Young is 57; Williams, 50), they have remained essential because they do not forget, to quote a Williams tune, the essence.
And then parallelism collapses. Young is arguably the most important rock innovator alive (as living guitarists go, only Richard Thompson and Chuck Berry merit serious comparison). Williams makes gorgeous records, but sound isn't her story (her former producer and guitarist, Gurf Morlix, might have made it so). She has never sonically challenged herself or her audience. Young's greatest records vibrate with inner violence, gangly imperfections and confusions. He barely mixed the 1973 concert masterpiece Time Fades Away; his art has always been live. Williams is notoriously shaky, even petrified, onstage. She'll never make slick records, but she is nothing if not meticulous: Even the unhurried, sensuous shimmer of her recent, underrated World Without Tears is a fine, painstaking design.
To his Boomer fans, Young will always be the voice of a besieged, failed utopianism, no matter that his '90s masterpieces Ragged Glory and Sleeps With Angels should have destroyed all phony nostalgia; to his Generation X followers, he is the only rock star Kurt Cobain cared about. For those kids, Lucinda Williams is a name on the CDs at Starbucks. Williams could care less about politics or saving trees. World Without Tears celebrates personal glories, from sex to God to bleeding fingers on broken strings. Young is currently touring ahead of Greendale (due out August 19), less an album than a telenovella on CD and DVD; be prepared for a bizarre show, complete with pumped-up dancers and a cardboard set. Williams would be as likely to pursue such stunts as she would be to stump for the GOP, which, of course, Young already tried. But return to what matters: Their humane and deeply human comprehension of American music is one and the same.