Lucinda Williams, Lu's Jukebox: In-Studio Concert Series (mandolin.com, 2020)
There are people who thrive in environments of rapid-fire decision making. Emily Harrington free-climbed El Capitan in just over 21 hours. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days. There are just seven years between the Beatles’ first and last albums.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who prefer extended deliberation. Climbers can spend a week getting to the top of El Capitan. It took Tolkien 17 years to complete The Lord of the Rings. Dr. Dre has been working on Detox since 2001.
For whatever reason, Lucinda Williams has developed an undeserved reputation for being a member of the latter group even though, like most of us, she’s somewhere in the middle. You can’t get five sentences into her Wikipedia article before reading the phrase, “Known for working slowly….” Yet the same webpage catalogues 15 albums released since 1979. That’s an average of one full-length release every 33 months, three of which are double albums. By comparison, fellow studio perfectionists U2 have put out 14 albums since 1980 with no they-work-slowly associations.
Last year, Williams totally dismantled those false narratives regarding her work pace, whether that was her intention or not. She released the rocking, bluesy Good Souls, Better Angels (Highway 20/ Thirty Tigers, 2020) in the spring, and is said to have recorded it in 15 days. Then between October and December she streamed a six-episode series of themed concerts, each of which was released as a live album within a week of the show.
Tom Petty, southern soul, Bob Dylan, 60’s country, Christmas, and the Rolling Stones are treated in turn to Williams’ interpretations. She’s clearly playing on her home court here. So is her band. These are songs made both by and for fans. From the first note of Petty’s ‘Rebels’ to the last note of the Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ the artists are mining rich veins of music for which they have palpable love and respect.
Williams sings from a lifetime of experience that no one younger could access (she turned 68 a few weeks after the last album in the series was released), and her phrasings occupy sonic space that no other set of vocal chords could provide. Over, under and through music made by a phenomenal band that stays at once in the pocket and right with her, Williams expertly molds the emotional tone of any given lyric.
On Willie Nelson’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away,’ she sounds languid, plaintive and insistent in the span of a single verse. On the Stone’s ‘Paint It Black’ she’s brooding and defeated. On Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ she’s casually sweet and open. On Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph Run,’ she sounds like she's having as much fun being a part of the brand-new arrangement as we're having hearing it.
While the emotional range expressed over the course of all 76 new songs extends well beyond these examples, Williams is that much more compelling because her vocal range remains consistent throughout. There are no distracting vocal excursions, no derivative stylings. There is only Williams, a singular song interpreter. And when she sings, she means it.
Lu's Jukebox was online-only and each concert was conducted with pandemic-era social distancing recommendations in mind. As a result, the albums also serve as documents of music in the time of COVID. With normal avenues of distribution and touring unavailable, the series chronicles how in-studio recording and broadcast performance were sometimes hybridized (and monetized) to great artistic effect.
What must have been considerable production challenges within this context were answered admirably. The sound across all six albums includes a consistently subdued and golden tone. Of course, the sound comes from the singer and the players, but providing the means for such atmospheric cohesion and capturing it over a wide variety of material and with such novel constraints deserves special mention. Impressively, there is both warmth and clarity, but there is neither softening nor sterilizing of the performances.
Edward Abbey wrote, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount…. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Perhaps Williams’ critics should see an analogy. Williams does not work slowly. She works at exactly the right pace to avoid making music where no music should be. This requires remarkable discipline and an integrity from which we all benefit. The result is an unbroken constellation of shimmering albums, a body of work that is now greater by six excellent new collections of songs.
Robert Hann: email@example.com