Bring in the Noise

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MICHAEL HALSBAND FOR TIME

A SERENER WILLIAMS: The singer-songwriter's new album brings the noise and the pain

For decades, the American record-buying public has made its position clear. People do not want poetry mixing with their popular music any more than they want Fred Durst speaking in full sentences. Avril Lavigne's level of complexity and Alanis Morissette's version of irony will do just fine for the drive to the shore, thank you. The two legendary exceptions are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Both have a poet's gift for turning common words into indelible images and a rock star's knack for churning out melodies that make their poetry subliminal. They bring the pain and the noise.

It's tempting to say that with her seventh album, World Without Tears, Lucinda Williams is knocking on Bob and Bruce's door. Tempting, but untrue, because for years she has been their equal as a writer of aching lyrics and easy hooks. But owing to the no-poetry rule, and a few other irrational market prejudices, she was branded with that deadliest of commercial adjectives: challenging. Her high-art pedigree — she is the daughter of poet Miller Williams, who wrote Inaugural verse for Bill Clinton in 1997--scared off arena crowds; her blending of country, folk, rock and blues made her Kryptonite to rigidly formatted radio; her weakness for bass players and love of Southern Gothic led some to dismiss her as eccentric. An 11,000-word profile in the New Yorker that concluded Williams wrote best when she was thoroughly miserable didn't help matters.


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Williams will cop to being eccentric. Anyone who undertakes interviews in a giant pink furry hat and an ISSUES T shirt doesn't leave herself much choice. ("It's a crazy world right now," Williams explains. "May as well wear a crazy hat.") But challenging? Miserable? "Maybe people see my songs as sad. Whatever," she says dismissively in her Louisiana drawl. "Even if you want to talk about a darker song of mine, I still see the glass as half full. I'm coming from a place of empowerment. I'm not being sucked down into the bowels of misery. I mean, Gawd!"

She's right. Her past work isn't all that dark, but it's easier to change your approach than to change the market, and on World Without Tears Williams tries something that brings her optimism into sharper relief. World is a rock record, and a great one. There are country and blues flourishes, and a few changes of pace, but if you block out the supremely crafted (and yes, dolorous) lyrics on tracks such as Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings and Righteously, you could be listening to vintage Rolling Stones. "I had wanted to do a more up-tempo thing," says Williams, "and a few years ago Greg Sowders, who I used to be married to, said, 'Lucinda, you just need to do a rock record. This could be your Exile on Main Street!'"

From World's first lyric--"Baby see how I been living, velvet curtains on the windows to/Keep the bright and unforgiving light from shining through"--Williams admits that she's a sucker for the wrong man, and no, she'll probably never learn. But the music, recorded live in a California mansion, acts as a counterweight. "Recording live," says Williams, "just makes everything sound a lot warmer and more buoyant. I like that contrast."

The contrast doesn't just make Williams' songs more accessible, it also allows her to communicate a more complete range of emotions. Those Three Days is about an apparently budding long-term romance that turned out to be just a fling. "I was pretty pissed off when I wrote it," says Williams, and her anger comes through in such screeching lines as "You found a hole and in you came" and "Scorpions crawl across my screen." Then the music rises and segues into a chorus--"Did you only love me for those three days?"--that wouldn't be out of place on a Lionel Richie album (or rather, a good Lionel Richie album). "It's like this pop refrain," Williams says. "When I finished, I thought, 'This is just too schizoid; it's two songs in one.'" But unrequited love carries with it a series of conflicting emotions, and a song about unrequited love should too.

The flirtation between happiness and sadness is all over World Without Tears. Sweet Side is about a woman who loves her man, a victim of child abuse, because "I know you don't mean to do the cruel things you do." Minneapolis contrasts the open wound of a relationship with the glistening whiteness of the Minnesota winter, while the perky People Talkin' decodes a fair number of Williams' riddles: "Livin' is full of misery and pain/Somebody calls you a dirty name, keep on walkin'."

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