Published Feb 03, 2016If her underrated (but far from understated) 2014 double record Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone was a righteous country soul party, a little cheesy and bar band-y but infused with a ton of spirit, perseverance and celebration, then Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams' 12th album and second on her own label, is its slow, bluesy, world-weary wake after the death of her father, writer Miller Williams, last year (an interpretation of his poem "Compassion" kicked off the previous album).
Almost an hour and a half long, Ghosts has roots in the sessions that produced DWTSMTB, and the two records feel related, both in timbre (Greg Leisz is back as co-producer and guitarist) and in subject matter. But while Spirit showed Williams rocking out, the power of Highway 20 stems from its bleakness and sadness; the songs are expansive, often incantational, recorded without overdubs and featuring impressionistic guitar interplay between Leisz and Bill Frisell (who plays a much bigger role this time out).
Lyrically, the emphasis seems to be on ghosts, but Highway 20 is also important, with some of the songs looking back at Williams' early life growing up near it. The title track is a bit like 1998's "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," but much closer to the spirit world, less lively, way more weary, much later in the day. Nine-minute-long "Louisiana," meanwhile, is a deep orange whispered snapshot from childhood, filled with emotional honesty.
Then there are love songs, at which Williams still excels: the lullaby-like "Place In My Heart," which recalls "Like A Rose," though sturdier, lacking the flooring vulnerability of the earlier one, and "Can't Close The Door On Love."
Some of the album's most interesting moments are its covers: Williams' borrows words from Woody Guthrie to deliver the profound eroticism in "House Of Earth" — at times like this I really wish Williams would enunciate better — and provides an appropriately sad, fatal home for Springsteen's "Factory."
Williams closes with "Faith And Grace," a 13-minute long exploration set apart from the rest. Williams, Frisell and bassist David Sutton are joined on it by Carlton "Santa" Davis (Peter Tosh) on drums and Ras Michael on hand drums and backup vocals. Something happens at the end of the song, after Williams has repeated "get right with God" and "a little more faith and grace" so many times that the music opens up into great enveloping guitar distortion and drums, evoking a big round sea of light.