Lucinda Williams’ new album, “The Ghosts of Highway 20” (Thirty Tigers), unfolds like a great short story collection.
It is no lighthearted affair, with songs weighing issues of mortality and immortality, of love and forgiveness. However, Williams’ changing perspectives and varied approaches keep propelling the journey forward.
“The Ghosts of Highway 20” was inspired by I-20, which runs between South Carolina and Texas, a road that Williams traveled growing up as well as in her decades of touring as one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters.
In true storyteller form, Williams doesn’t start with an explanation, but just dives right in with “Dust,” which may be the hardest-hitting song on the album. Based on a poem by her late father, the one-time poet laureate Miller Williams, there’s no nostalgia here, only despair. “You couldn’t cry if you wanted to,” Williams repeats. “Even your thoughts are dust.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t uplifting moments, but they are layered, complicated efforts, even when they appear simple.
The bluesy “Doors of Heaven” is an early entry for song of the year. It is seemingly a swaggering call: “Open up the doors of heaven, let me in.” However, that joy only seems to come because it would mark the end of all her earthly despair. The snarling rocker “Bitter Memory,” featuring Bill Frisell’s inspired, twanging guitar work, only succeeds because Williams is determined to move on.
Though nearly all of “Ghosts” is Williams’ creation, she does rework some Woody Guthrie lyrics to create the complicated relationships of “House of Earth” and remakes Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” in her own 21st century Americana image — spare and echoing to reflect how empty many of those places feel today.
That the work of those greats seems indistinguishable from the rest of “The Ghosts of Highway 20” only proves that Williams remains one of music’s greatest songwriters.