One year after the release of her double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Lucinda Williams has released another record. The Ghosts of Highway 20 (February 5th), which focuses on a region which I know well. Having grown up in Shreveport, Louisiana, I-20 (which Lucinda calls a highway) runs right through my home town. I spent many hours driving it, and the parallel Highway 80 and can testify to the accuracy of her language and ethos she creates with this collection of songs.
Throughout her nearly four-decade-long career, Williams’ unadorned musical narrative has never demanded abrupt or needless stylistic changes. Where the common themes of loss, heartbreak, and despair would spiral into redundancy for other artists, Williams’ distinction has come from her ability to revisit and not simply repeat the familiar. In that way, The Ghosts of Highway 20 provides a thematic continuance of the Louisiana native’s storytelling.[i]
In many ways, The Ghosts of Highway 20 feels like a companion piece to Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone in its emotionally direct approach and willingness to let the songs play themselves out at their own pace. — they drift with the current, but they don’t meander, and they get where they’re going in their own sweet time. Most of the performances on Highway 20 are anchored by the guitar interplay of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (the latter also co-produced the album with Williams and Tom Overby), and while their performances seem low on flash, especially given the estimable talents of these players, they have a faultless instinct for the moods and rhythms of these songs, and this is an album where nuance truly takes center stage.
However, while Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone was an album that covered a wide variety of themes, the 14 songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20 all seem to turn on some sort of struggle — against depression (“Dust”), against the limitations of our lives on Earth (“Doors of Heaven”), against the past (“Bitter Memory” and the title song), and against betrayal (“I Know All About It”). Even as Williams calls up nostalgic images of life in Louisiana (“Louisiana Story”), she’s still trying to free herself from memories of hurts inflicted by her loved ones, and her appeals to the Lord for guidance and peace (“If There’s a Heaven” and “Faith & Grace”) sound and feel sincere, as if the shackles of her physical being are just too much for her.
Williams’ vocal performances here represent a remarkable high-wire act, as she brings her emotions to the surface without resorting to histrionics. Her musical adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s “House of Earth,” a curiously erotic dialogue between a whore and a customer, is all the more striking for its refusal to play broad. After releasing one of the best and boldest albums of her career with Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Williams goes from strength to strength with The Ghosts of Highway 20, and it seems like a welcome surprise that she’s moving into one of the most fruitful periods of her recording career as she approaches her fourth decade as a musician.[ii]
[i] Jonathan K. Dick, “Folk rock legend captures a concrete portrayal of the most unsure moment of life: the end”, Consequence of Sound, Feb. 2, 2016. Accessed 2/8/2016.
[ii] Mark Deming, “Allmusic album review: The Ghosts of Highway 20”, Allmusic.com. accessed 2/8/2016.