Lucinda Williams has been on a tear in recent years. After releasing a total of four albums during the first 18 years of her career, she has released another four in the past seven. Her latest, Little Honey, follows right on the heels of 2007’s West.
Her most notorious dry spell was the six years between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, when her perfectionism got the better of her and she refused to release Car Wheels until it was just right. And I can’t argue with that, because it is a perfect album… one of the few in my collection about which I’ll say that without reservation. But still, six years is a long time.
Williams’ last four albums are decidedly imperfect, but they demonstrate that she’s growing as an artist. She’s more willing to go out on a limb, to try new things. More willing to fail. And she has released some of her best work during this period, with Little Honey as a pinnacle in the second part of her career and the best thing she’s released since Car Wheels.
Little Honey is all over the place, thematically. Much has been made of this being her first “happy” record, and indeed it contains several straight-up love songs. But some of those love songs are dressed up in music that sounds an awful lot like the blues. Those happy-sad songs, such as ‘Tears of Joy,’ ‘Circles and X’s,’ and ‘Knowing,’ are among the highlights here.
Just as good, though, is happy-happy love song ‘Real Love,’ the first single, which is a buoyant and rip-snorting slice of country rock.
One of the things I love best about Williams is how authentic she comes across. I know nothing about her personal life, but I fully believe that she spends her evenings kicking back on a porch swing with a guitar and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Contrast that to somebody like Sheryl Crow, whose music just doesn’t feel lived-in — I picture her walking out of the studio and sliding onto a tanning bed.
Williams’ earthiness serves her well on ‘Jailhouse Tears,’ a hilarious duet with Elvis Costello designed as a back-and-forth between an alcoholic loser and the woman he ran out on.
L: You tried to steal my truck but that’s not what this is about
E: I just went to the corner to get a cold six pack
L: You’re a drunk, you’re a stoner; you never came back
E: I used to be a user, now I’m out of stuff
L: You’re a three time loser, you’re all fucked up
The best song here is probably ‘If Wishes Were Horses,’ a gorgeous bluesy ballad that she wrote 20 years ago but only saw the light of day on this record. It’s one of those great songs that instantly becomes a shoo-in for any Lucinda Williams greatest songs mix CD…. it’s always nice to get one of those on a brand-new album.
Little Honey does have two weak spots, though that’s selling them a bit short. ‘Honey Bee’ is a loud, dumb, horny rock song… which is fine, but it’s surrounded by much better material and it’s tempting to skip it. It does have one of the dirtiest lyrics I’ve heard outside of a Prince song, though: “Oh my little honey bee / I’m so glad you stung me / Now I’ve got your honey / All over my tummy.” OK, then.
And ‘Rarity’ is a beautiful elegiac tribute to an unnamed songwriter that would be just right at 4 minutes but inexplicably goes on twice that long. ‘Little Rock Star,’ on the other hand, is also addressed to an unnamed songwriter, but it’s a brilliant power ballad that launches the album into a higher gear.
I’ll mention one more thing, which is the backing band Williams has assembled here. This is her best-sounding record by far, with exquisite work from each and every musician. It’s reminiscent of some of the great blues-rock playing Lyle Lovett has captured on his albums. There’s not a second of this CD that doesn’t sound just right from a performance standpoint.