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ALBUM REVIEW

Williams’ new album opens with a lusty celebration of spontaneous lovemaking, but things go wrong pretty fast. That depiction of helpless love and consuming desire turns out to be just a prologue, or a memory, that establishes the enormity of the hurt that feeds her fire through the rest of the album.

The record is a protracted post-mortem on a relationship, structured around the woman’s drive across Louisiana--a journey of escape and cleansing that begins with the sound of the title image. This narrative device allows Williams to range from elegiac to enraged, and to chart her emotional state on the grand stage of the American road.

If the music had failed to match that thematic ambition, “Car Wheels” would have been as dysfunctional as the relationship that unfolds in the singer’s reminiscences and introspection. But Williams, with primary producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy, comes up with a rich, assertive attack ranging from pure folk and blues roots to a Bruce-on-Blond folk-rock.

Fronted by Williams’ swaggering, authoritative voice, it’s a sound that lives up to the big question she poses: Is the passion worth the pain? Her answers are resonant, resolute and reassuring.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

Hear the Music

* Excerpts from Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and other recent releases are available on The Times’ World Wide Web site. Point your browser to:https://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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