BY ELI FRANK —
Coming into notoriety with her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams has had a prolific career. An artist known for taking her time while working, often spending many years perfecting records before their release, The Ghosts of Highway 20 comes less than two years after her 2014 Grammy-winning double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Continuing to explore her well-developed themes of death, love and heartbreak, taking us on the journey down Highway 20 from Florida to Louisiana, Ghosts is a dark and heavy but deeply reflective and engaging record.
Her well-worn and unmistakable southern drawl starts off the album on “Dust,” where her words slur to the sorrowful but somehow electrifying chorus, “You couldn’t cry if you wanted to / Even your thoughts are dust,” setting the tone for the melancholia that, despite more upbeat songs like “Doors of Heaven” and “Bitter Memory,” defines the record.
In “Place in my Heart,” Williams takes on a sweeter, warmer tone and her words and voice ring with the uncanny, unimpeachable authenticity characteristic of her 2007 record, West.
“Louisiana Story” is a vivid portrait of Southern life, and Williams owns the descriptive narrative style she mastered on songs like Essence’s “Bus to Baton Rouge.” Keeping with the charming geography lessons that became familiar on Car Wheels’ “Lake Charles,” “Louisiana Story” includes name-drops of Lake Charles, Monroe, Shreveport, Slidell, Baton Rouge and Thibodaux, further cementing the album in place, literally taking us down the highway that gave this album its name.
Winding and twisting, the title track continues with its references to Southern life: “Southern secrets still buried deep / Rooting and restless ‘neath the cracked concrete,” Williams sings. This song is perhaps the best embodiment of the album and one of the best tracks from it — sparse, unconstrained, haunting, but captivating.
Williams makes Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” her own, sounding as though she could have written it herself, well-versed in the song’s themes of working life.
The final track of the album, a 13-minute version of the Staples Singers’ “Faith and Grace,” is a fitting way to end: a perfect combination of death and struggle, but a hopefulness and willingness to keep fighting that prevents the album from becoming too heavy, leaving listeners with a twisted, distorted but very real sense of energy.
Methodical and unmoored from any pressures to alter her sound, Ghosts is authentically Lucinda. Drawing out her focus themes of loss, love and heartbreak, although in a significantly darker tone than before, Williams has never sounded more practiced or comfortable, making Ghosts a fascinating experience and a spectacular work of art, though maybe not a record for casual listening.