Lucinda Williams’s second double album in two years is another fruitful collaboration with soundscaping guitarists Greg Leisz and Bill Frissell. But there’s a noticeable shift between this album and the last, and not just because The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a concept album while 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (only loosely organized around a poem by Williams’s late father) is not.
The difference is in the songs, which return Williams to an expressively melancholic mode most thought she’d abandoned since finding the most steady romantic partner of her life in producer Tom Overby. Which is to say they’re heavy, both for their conceptually focused lyrics — evocations of “rundown motels and faded billboards” along the titular southern Interstate— and lumbering, lengthy, soul-draining composition.
Williams hasn’t made emotional exhaustion come off so convincing since 2007’s leftfield bummer masterpiece West, which came from a place of real, unqualified heartbreak: the death of Williams’s mother and the fallout from yet another bitter breakup. So how did Williams, now happily married, manage to tap this particular vein again?
A lot has been made of husband Overby’s role in what’s become a kind of late-career renaissance for Williams. The suggestion has been that his encouragement has loosened up his wife’s rigid quality control — a notorious vice at least since Williams insisted on re-recording her 1998 alt-country watershed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road three times in five years, with three separate bands.
But another narrative might consider Williams’s progression as a songwriter over just the last few years. Since 2011’s half-brilliant Blessed, the usually autobiographical singer has experimented with a direction that’s essentially new to her: writing about someone else’s troubles rather than her own. And on The Ghosts of Highway 20, she finally nails it, in part because the album’s theme, and her close relation to it (the north end of her home state of Louisiana is on I-20’s route from Texas to South Carolina), galvanizes her writing in much the same way location-specific detail always has.
Williams explicitly draws from this established strength on “Louisiana,” which joins the likes of “Lake Charles” and “Jackson” as one of her many exceptional evocations of place. But where the earlier songs were first-person accounts of Williams’s inner life, “Louisiana” is more broad in its scope, akin to something like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in song form.
It starts with Williams’s narrator “looking back on the sweetness” of her youth, but over nine epically sustained minutes the song expands out to explore the broader context of growing up in the Deep South. The singer recalls a mother who “cussed when something got spilled” and a father who chewed tobacco and taught the Bible. Typical familial domesticity takes on religious overtones: “You’re going to hell” is screamed over dinner. All the while, the Louisiana rain pours and pours, but it can’t wash away “the sins of the father.” When Williams finally circles back to “the sweetness” of her reminiscence, this time it’s joined by another category: “the rough.” Wistfulness and regret forever wrestle inside her.
Other songs are less concerned with geography only because where they’re going there’s no map. Starkly sequenced next to each other on disc one, “Death Came” and “Door to Heaven” represent two sides of the same mortality-obsessed coin: a rueful rejection of death and a celebratory embrace of it. The latter of these, with its Pop Staples-blues picking and hymn-like phrasing, is genuine gospelized rock n’ roll — a worthy response and successor to the seminal God-fearing barn-burner “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Williams’s hero, Bob Dylan.
One gets the sense throughout the muscular yet vulnerable songs on The Ghosts of Highway 20 that Williams is trying to align herself with the legacy of America’s greatest working-class troubadours. The gorgeous “House of Earth” comes from an unfinished Woody Guthrie song for which Williams wrote music; “Factory” is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar lament; and the album’s overall minimalist death rattle resembles the stripped-down revitalization Dylan underwent on Time Out of Mind.
This bid for portent fails Williams exactly once, on the album’s overlong, improvised finale. The nearly 13-minute “Faith and Grace” is the funkiest, most experimental track Williams has cut during in the last few years, but it nonetheless feels like one self-conscious Big Statement song too many for both this album and her catalogue in general. Its mantra-like lyrics reap diminishing returns in the wake of her other deliberately repetitious songs, including this album’s roiling, dynamic opener, “Dust.”
The Ghosts of Highway 20 is otherwise characterized by its consistency, but what really sets it apart from Williams’s previous album is its sense of emotional balance. While the prevailing mood is one of foreboding, Williams sneaks in a handful of appropriately intense love songs, all of which rank among her most affecting ever. A listen to “Place in My Heart,” in particular, with Frissell and Leisz atmospheric guitar production, stereo electric and softly strummed acoustic at its center, feels as intimate as hearing a lover’s heartbeat.
The huge range of terrain covered on The Ghosts of Highway 20—and how consistent the album sounds despite its sprawl—carries a poignant message from the artist as well. Like the restless souls of the road whose memory Williams hopes to conjure throughout, happiness and heartache are transitory. More than anything else, and almost ironically, Williams’s location-specific concept album serves as a reminder that her best songs need not inhabit one specific place, geographically or emotionally.