When most people reach the age of 60, thought of retirement may beckon and the idea of slowing down a gear and taking things a bit easier may start to appeal. That is obviously not a mindset that appeals to Lucinda Williams however – if anything, the advent of her seventh decade has led to her becoming more even more prolific than she usually is.
Just over a year ago, Williams released her 11th record, a critically acclaimed double album entitled Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. And, in what seems like the blink of an eye, now she’s released the follow-up, another double offering exploring her Southern roots. The Ghosts Of Highway 20 is named after the road that travels from western Texas over to South Carolina. On the way, it passes through the northern region of Williams’ home state, Louisiana, and it’s here that many of the 14 songs gathered on this album have their roots.
It’s a quieter, more reflective record than its predecessor, although Williams only has to sing one note in that remarkable drawl of a voice to prove that her fire is burning as bright as ever. For Williams has one of those voices that just drips with soul – it’s a voice that’s lived, and isn’t afraid to tell you how. I Know All About It is a shining example of that: just the way that Williams sighs “I know about the pain and all the jazz” is just hypnotic. She can turn the sweetness on too, the disarmingly romantic Place In My Heart reminding one of Tom Waits‘ great bar-room ballads.
There’s always pain bubbling under the surface, whether it be the wistful mention of “run down motels” and “faded billboards” on the epic, seven-minute long title track or the stark rendition of Bruce Springsteen‘s classic tale of the downtrodden working-class, Factory. After David Bowie‘s swansong, it’s now impossible to hear any references to death sung by an artist of a certain age without a bit of a shudder: as with everything else on this album though, Williams looks mortality straight in the eye and challenges it. Doors Of Heaven is almost inflected with a gospel-like joy as Williams’ drawl asks for the “doors of heaven to open up and let me in” – the effect, rather than glum, is oddly life-affirming.
Far more downbeat is Death Came, a gloomy mediation on bereavement with a slide guitar riff that will send shivers up the spine. As ever with Williams, her regular backing band accentuate and polish these songs beautifully – Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz’s guitars frame Williams perfectly, every chord they play seeming to sum up those titular ghosts of the highway. Yet they never overshadow the woman herself, who dominates proceedings with that smoky, cracked voice of hers. Even on a seemingly upbeat number, like the celebratory Can’t Close The Door On Love, she sounds like she’s on the verge of breaking down.
Some people may find it all a bit too glum and downbeat, especially over the course of an hour – this isn’t the sort of music you can stick on for some background listening. Those who do take the time will be richly rewarded, for Lucinda Williams is still playing at the height of her considerable powers.