The Ghosts of Highway 20
Uneasy Listening About Our Broken Society.
When Lucinda Williams first came to prominence with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998; she already had four albums under her belt; and still the critics didn’t know how to describe her music. It wasn’t what they knew as Country, Rock and she wasn’t what they knew as a singer-songwriter.
Even now, 37 years after her first release she isn’t really an Americana act not Alt. Country, as we know it because Lucinda Williams still tills her very own musical furrow.
Side One opens with ‘There’s a sadness so deep/The sun seems black/And you don’t have to try to keep the tears back,’ on the spine tingling Dust and the mood is set (in stone) for what is to follow.
When I first listened to this album I flippantly dismissed it as “not having very many laughs in it;” but now I realise – that’s the point!
What unfolds is a series of songs where Lucinda takes on the role of the downtrodden and lonely in a way that Springsteen, Young etc. can only dream of doing these days. At times the singer sounds so tired she can hardly finish her words and sentences; but you will already be ahead of her and it it, therefore isn’t always necessary.
Take a deep breath before you listen to the first two lines of I Know All About It; because it will leave you in no doubt about the life of the woman in the story; ‘You’ve been living on the Jazz side of life/Carrying your pain in your back pocket.’ How eloquent and descriptive is that?
Even the love songs; if that’s what you can call them, are as dark as the pits of Hell. In Place In My Heart; Lucinda tells her lover ‘Even though you make me blue/I got room enough for you/No matter what you do.’ Sadly I know all too many women caught in that situation; and Lucinda tells their tale with gut wrenching honesty.
Two songs which virtually bleed into one; the almost hypnotic mantra of Death Came and then Doors of Heaven, which follows begins with a jagged guitar and Lucinda humming before crying; “Open up the doors of Heaven/Let me in/I think I’m finally tired of living/let me in.” Who else can you think of that can get inside the underbelly of our broken society in such an articulate manner?
Side Two of this rather remarkable Double Album, starts with the austere and atmospheric title track; Ghosts of Highway 20; When I first fell in love with Lucinda she was a very angry woman and her songs reflected that; on this song she finally sounds beaten down and world weary as she describes a town and its inhabitants left to rot; in the name of progress.
The jauntiest track on the whole album; Bitter Memory only masks yet another sad tale of a rotten relationship; but the woman is angry that the Bitter Memory is stopping her moving on with her life.
I’d listened to this album three times before I realised that Factory was actually the Bruce Springsteen song. With the aid of Bill Frisell on a guitar that will frighten the pants off you; Lucinda deconstructs an already threadbare song and makes it the cornerstone for the whole record.
To some degree it’s scary to think what ‘kind of place’ Lucinda was in when she wrote these songs.
Her voice during Can’t Close The Door on Love, sounds close to breaking point as she lurches into yet another ill fated love affair; “I know we fight and we can raise some Hell/But I’m gonna be with you for the rest of my life.”
Side Two and therefore the album, closes with, perhaps two songs of hope that get people like this from one day to the next.
If There’s a Heaven is a hymn like affair; as someone sits at the bedside of a loved one who is about to pass. The one left behind cries “I will be lost when you cross over the other side” then “But when you go/Let me know there’s a Heaven out there.” If not what was all the suffering for? It’s a fair question.
Then the theme continues with the epic 12 minutes and 42 seconds of Faith and Grace, which brings everything to a crumbling close. A jazzy-blues beat shadows Lucinda who takes the role of someone taking more hits than a punch drunk boxer; but who still believes ‘My burden is hard to bear/And no one to help me share/But I know when I make the call/Cause I know God will hear.” William’s voice is barely more than a whisper at times; and you will strain to hear her words, but you will feel emotionally drained at the end.
I’m no lover of Double Albums as they are normally ‘vanity project;s’ with numerous songs shoehorned in to make the numbers up.
That is not the case here. Every single song; no matter how unhappy the content, all go together to create a story that simply had to be told and should be heard in schools and parliaments around the globe.
Sadly; many die-hard Lucinda Williams fans will struggle to get past Album one; because of the dark and miserable story lines; but if you persevere you will hear an album that is the equivalent of the Dutch Masters in the art-world; and could easily be the album that Lucinda Williams is remembered for in fifty years time.
Released February 5th 2016