While many considered Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Essence as definitive statements of arrival for Lucinda Williams as a pop star, she "arrived" creatively with her self-titled album in 1988 and opened up a further world of possibilities with Sweet Old World. The latter two records merely cemented a reputation that was well-deserved from the outset, though they admittedly confused some of her earliest fans. World Without Tears is the most immediate, unpolished album she's done since Sweet Old World. In addition, it is simply the bravest, most emotionally wrenching record she's ever issued. It offers unflinching honesty regarding the paradoxes inherent in love as both a necessary force for fulfillment and a destructive one when embraced unconsciously. Fans of her more polished, emotionally yearning material may have a hard time here because there isn't one track -- of 13 -- that isn't right from the gut, ripped open, bleeding, and stripped of metaphors and literary allusions; they're all cut with the fineness of a stiletto slicing through white bone into the heart's blood. World Without Tears is, among other things, predominantly about co-dependent, screwed-up love. It's about relationships that begin seemingly innocently and well-intentioned and become overwhelmingly powerful emotionally and transcendent sexually, until the moment where a fissure happens, baggage gets dumped in the space between lovers, and they turn in on themselves, becoming twisted and destructive -- where souls get scorched and bodies feel the addictive, obsessive need to be touched by a now absent other. The whole experience burns to ashes; it becomes a series of tattoos disguised as scars. The experience is lived through with shattering pain and bewilderment until wrinkled wisdom emerges on the other side. Most of Williams' albums have one song that deals with this theme, but with the exception of a couple of songs, here they all do.
Musically, this is the hardest-rocking record she's ever released, though almost half the songs are ballads. Her road band -- on record with her for the first time -- cut this one live from the studio floor adding keyboards and assorted sonic textures later. The energy here just crackles. Sure, there's gorgeous country and folk music here. "Ventura," with its lilting verse and lap steel whining in the background, is a paean to be swallowed up in the ocean of love's embrace. In fact, it's downright prosaic until she gets to the last verse: "Stand in the shower to clean this dirty mess/Give me back my power and drown this unholiness/Lean over the toilet bowl and throw up my confession/Cleanse my soul of this hidden obsession." The melodic frame is still moving, but the tune reverses itself: It's no longer a broken-hearted ballad, but a statement of purpose and survival. "Fruits of My Labor" is a straight-ahead country song. Williams shimmers with her lyric, her want pouring from her mouth like raw dripping honey. Her words are a poetry of want: "I traced your scent through the gloom/Till I found these purple flowers/I was spent, I was soon smelling you for hours...I've been trying to enjoy all the fruits of my labor/I've been cryin' for you boy, but truth is my savior." One can hear the grain of Loretta Lynn's voice, with an intent so pure and unadorned. But the muck and mire of "Righteously," with its open six-string squall, is pure rock. It's an exhortation to a lover that he need not prove his manhood by being aloof, but to "be the man you ought to tenderly/Stand up for me." Doug Pettibone's overdriven, crunching guitar solo quotes both Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix near the end of the tune. "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" is a Rolling Stones-style country-rocker with a lyric so poignant it need not be quoted here. "Over Time," a tome about getting through the heartbreak of a ruined relationship, could have been produced by Daniel Lanois with its warm guitar tremolo and sweet, pure, haunting vocal in front of the mix.
"Those Three Days" may be the most devastating song on the record, with its whimpering lap steel and Williams' half-spoken vocal that questions whether a torrid three-day affair was a lie, a symbolic sacrifice, or the real thing. The protagonist's vulnerability is radical; she feels used, abused -- "Did you only want me for those three days/Did you only need me for those three days/Did you love me forever just for those three days." Yet she holds out hope that there is some other explanation as the questions begin to ask themselves from the depth of a scorched heart and a body touched by something so powerful it feels as if it no longer owns itself. Pettibone's solo screams and rings in the bridge to underline every syllable and emotion. "Atonement" is something else altogether; it's a punkish kind of blues. If the White Stripes jammed with 20 Miles in a big studio it might sound like this, with Williams singing from the depths of a tunnel for a supreme megaphone effect. She growls and shouts and spits her lyrics from the center of the mix. And Taras Prodaniuk's fuzzed-out basement-level gutter bass is the dirtiest, raunchiest thing on record since early Black Sabbath. "Sweet Side" is almost a poem in song, attempts to inspire someone who's been broken by life to accept his goodness. It is not a rap song despite what's been written about it so far. It's more in the tradition of Bob Dylan's early talking blues, but with a modern organic rhythm played by Jim Christie instead of drum loops. In addition, there is the gorgeously tough "People Talking," the most straight-ahead country song Williams has written since "Still I Long for Your Kiss" (from the Horse Whisperer soundtrack, not the version that appears on Car Wheels, which is dull and lifeless by comparison). Here again, Pettibone's guitar and the slippery, skittering shuffle of Christie's drumming carry Williams' voice to a place where she can sing her protagonist's personal, soul-searing truth without restraint.
World Without Tears is a work of art in the Henry James sense; it is "that which can never be repeated." It is as fine an album as she could make at this point in her life -- which is saying plenty. While she has never strayed from her own vision and has made few compromises, this album risks everything she's built up to now. The audience she's won over time -- especially with her last two records -- may find it over the top, which would be too damn bad; it'd be their loss. Hopefully, history will prove that World Without Tears sets a new watermark for Williams, and is an album so thoroughly ahead of its time in the way it embraces, and even flaunts, love's contradictions and paradoxes -- the same way the human heart does.