To celebrate the 25th anniversary of her album Sweet Old World, Lucinda Williams has rerecorded it with her current touring band and renamed it This Sweet Old World. Most artists would settle for a remastered, repackaged pressing with a few unreleased songs and some pictures from the glory days sprinkled throughout a limited-edition booklet, but Williams goes deep here on her classic album. Imagine what Bob Dylan fans would say if the Dylan of today remade Blood on the Tracks?
Which is to say it's a perilous project. Williams has reinterpreted the album with a stripped down, ragged sound. Where the original Sweet Old World has a subtle pop feel to it, the new version is more like well-produced Southern-style garage rock.
Side by side, the most striking difference — besides the title and four additional songs — is Williams' voice. The earlier vocals are clearer, with a more dynamic range. Over the years, Williams' voice has aged into a slurred drawl; words drop off, incomplete. This isn't to say that the vocals are "bad." Like any number of brilliant songwriters who are, as Leonard Cohen said, "born with the gift of a golden voice," Lucinda Williams uses what she has masterfully, making it sometimes almost too intense to listen to straight through. Her voice is a pipeline to the song's centre. If she sings about heartache, heartache is what you get. There's nothing phony or pretentious in her delivery. Like an actor, she inhabits these songs.
Lucinda Williams is an artist with the confidence to say what needs to be said, and the power to back it up. On This Sweet Old World, she might be repeating the words, but she's hardly repeating herself. (Highway 20)