As impressive as her last album "Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone" was, this much is true about Lucinda Williams: the next album will be as stellar or even more. That's not to say any of her releases are subpar, but the quality (and now consistency) of her output makes her a precious gem. And this record, an album inspired and influenced by I-20, a winding piece of pavement that cuts throughout her home state of Louisiana, is the usual extraordinary affair you'd expect.
Backed by a seasoned cast who she lets shine throughout, Williams opens with the slow-building gem "Dust." Williams sings about wanting to let it all out, but "you couldn't cry if you wanted to" as the guitars slowly but surely begin to come to the fore for a rousing finale.
Yet she keeps things low key with "House Of Earth," another sparse, moody tune that sounds like she's reworking a Nick Cave deep cut. The album takes a bit of a turn when the singer delivers a sultry vocal on "I Know All About It," a jazzy effort that isn't exactly in her wheelhouse, but still comes out quite strongly.
There is nothing busy or forced with this record from start to finish, something mentioned in the press packet, but audibly apparent from the first four songs. It's essentially a dream Daniel Lanois might have on a weekly basis in terms of production values.
"Place In My Heart" has a great '50s ballad feeling a la Connie Francis or Patsy Cline. Williams gracefully glides through this keeper, making it an early album highlight. But that pales somewhat to the gritty, greasy, blues feel of "Doors Of Heaven" that shines as each musician enters the fray in their good old time.
After the thoughtful, nearly 10-minute vignette in "Louisiana Story," Williams weaves through the title track with a powerful vocal and Greg Leisz's guitar work heard off in the distance. The one "boogie" number comes through during the homestretch as "Bitter Memory" sounds like it's ready to burst out and does just that a little over a minute in. And what can be said about her rendition of Springsteen's "Factory" except for the fact she might have enhanced the original.
Some might argue the 86-minute record could have used a bit of parsing of a song or two (including the nearly 13-minute closer "Faith & Grace"), but Williams is far more interested in the groove on this album. And while it might sound like a broken record this deep into her career, it's one of her best. Highway 20 is 1,500 miles long, but this might be the only album you'd need on that trek from one end to the other.