Lucinda Williams has made a career of writing terrific unrequited love songs, shattered ballads, and sexually liberated tomes drenched in blues, country, folk and rock. Since her breakthrough on 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she's actually recorded quite regularly; Little Honey is her fourth studio album this decade so far and fifth overall -- in the '90s she released a total of two. Williams throws some more change-ups into the mix this time. For starters, this is the most polished and studied record she's ever made. Produced by Eric Liljestrand and Tom Overby, its sound is utterly contemporary, though its forms are rooted in electric '70s rock as well as her fallbacks on blues and old-school Americana. The set opens with the rollicking "Real Love," with jangling, charging guitars by Doug Pettibone, and Rob Burger on Wurlitzer, and a backing chorus held down by the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet. Its pop/rock bent is tempered by the roiling pace and Williams trademark Louisiana voice. But it's a startling introduction to an album that, while produced with a certain conscious flair, is the most loosely focused of her career in terms of her songwriting.
Williams can still write the beautiful cut-time country tunes, such as the ballad "Circles and X's" and the honky tonk "Jailhouse Tears," a fun throwaway duet with Elvis Costello, and a backing chorus that includes Jim Lauderdale. The blues make their appearance on the beautiful "Tears of Joy" and the appropriately titled "Heaven Blues," a song that references her late mother and redemption, with excellent slide work by Pettibone. Greasy, punched up guitar rock is what fuels the sexually charged "Honey Bee," and a cover of AC/DC's "Long Way to the Top" (though her arrangement on the latter doesn't work). There's also the beautiful, but lyrically indulgent, "Little Rock Star" a warning to the unnamed talents who live in the self-made hell of excess. Williams should know. The album's longest cut is "Rarity," a poignantly gorgeous, heartfelt, cough-syrup tribute to an unnamed but very talented peer. It features Hoffs and Sweet, and a lovely gospel horn arrangement by Bruce Fowler. Its languid, lazy pace is atmospheric and draws itself out over eight minutes making for one of the most memorable moments here. Quoting Williams' lyrics out of context doesn't serve for this record, because they are more directly song lyrics than the poetry she's crafted in song form before. Upon first listen Little Honey is quite jarring for all of its textural and production shifts and dodges, but in time it settles into the listener as a mixed collection of decent songs that pack some punch, but no jaw-dropping wallops. The faithful will no doubt enjoy this set, but the novice should look to earlier albums to discover what all the critical fuss has been about these last 25 years.