Lucinda Williams World Without Tears

It’s sheer coincidence that the opening track is called "Fruits Of My Labour,” but its connotation does suggest that Ms. Williams is finally comfortable with her status as alt-country’s female icon. After a long period of obscurity ended with two highly personal albums that made her a role model for the new generation of female songwriters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that here Williams has chosen to make a raw, lively record that pulls her unblinking introspection back, if only a bit, from the open heart surgery that was her previous album, Essence. She remains among the few great songwriters able to capture the pain of adult relationships gone wrong, and on this album "Those Three Days,” "Sweet Side,” and "Minneapolis” rank among the best ever written on the subject. But elsewhere she seems eager to try new things, and the spacious production of Daniel Lanois acolyte Mark Howard allows her to do that. "Righteously” is a deceptively bouncy side of her that is rarely shown, and "Atonement” sees her in full blues-wailing Baptist minister mode. Like the sound on much of the rest of the songs, you can almost feel the sweat dripping through the speakers. The album’s only letdown comes when Williams actually does decide to preach about the world’s ills on "American Dream” and the title track. The former is a rant about her country’s social problems, that unfortunately comes off like Michael Moore’s to-do list for future projects, while the latter is cut from similar cloth and cynical enough to put to shame any song Richard Thompson has written. Yet, these complaints are minor in the overall scope of an artist who on this album continues to produce all-around essential work for any fan of American music. (Lost Highway)