The Damage Is Never Done
430 · 24 April 03
Lucinda Williams: World Without Tears
Put together, Lucinda Williams and Shania Twain are what's become of country music. Which is to say, maybe, that taken apart, they seem to me to tell two inverted stories of the life courses of the idealized kids who are country music's implicit standing protagonists. Shania's version is the sunny, romantically trivialized version of their lives. Their idyllic farmhouse upbringing was a grounding in simplified morality and an installation of transiently fallible but ultimately enduring self-confidence and reality-molding identity-belief. They moved to the city when they were young enough for fearlessness but old enough for excitement, and somehow all their country clothes turned out to be lit from within and fabulous instead of mud-dulled and provincial. In the caverns of glass, they found others of their own wide-eyed kind with the pheromonal precision of space-faring fire-ants, and proceeded to be enchanted and rooted and role-model uplifting among the benighted and terrified until anonymous crowds learned to spontaneously applaud them on sun-drenched subway platforms. Their problems are the kinds of laugh-about-later twinges for which "later" is almost "during". They play where the rest of us live. They are air, and we are cement. And when it comes time to spawn, they backstroke away into the cornfield sunset, that the next generation may be born again into its rightful inheritance of endless open skies as a metaphor for hearts, and a distant glitter of bright lights that are less beacons than stars, strung out across the horizon to have constellations and fables stretched between. In their stories they say "we", but we know they don't mean us. They offer us ways they say our lives could be, and we nod to be polite, but we know they don't mean it. Even dreaming of their lives would probably hurt us more than it would help. More: their lives can only be lived from within. Perspective renders them impossible. They are dispelled by observation. We who watch them, for whom they perform, are by our role as audience incontrovertibly proscribed from inhabiting the illusion. Seeing is disbelieving, and in disbelief we are contained and lost.
In Lucinda's version, they never get out. In Lucinda's world, horizons are only ever seen through broken screen doors, and behind beached tractors, and beyond the rutted turn where two of your best friends went off the road in their father's truck when you were in high school, and the one that lived now works at the A&P by the highway, slowly pushing one cart at a time back under the frayed awning with his good arm, and the doctors at County say he smiles when you say hi because in his brain now everything sounds like trumpets. Those kids grew up without possibilities, and married without much hope, and fell into their chosen subsets of misfortune with what might have been grace in other animals, but in people is only not resentment because they haven't the energy. The few that got out discovered that broken is something you take with you when you leave, and cities are only places for self-inflicting new wounds that offer no more expiation than the old ones. There is strength underneath, they'll tell us, and we'll wonder whether "strength" is the right word for standing up to blows because there's a wall behind you. And maybe, when you stand up because you only think there's a wall behind you, it actually is. But these hard lives, for us, may be no easier to live than Shania's impossible easy ones. We can no more have stayed in small towns we didn't come from than we can move to castles in the Alps. Self-awareness undermines all types. We hear a song about the screen door, and now it's half the broken screen door it was, and half a symbol, and the song in turn becomes half an allegory and half embedded in the doorways of our own houses. We tell stories in which we are anything but storytellers, and then wonder why they don't come true.
Played all the way through, World Without Tears is a squall of defiant pain. I have tried to fit Lucinda into existing places in my world, I admit, one tab into a slot near Emmylou Harris where melancholy nobility seeps through the walls like fog into cloud forts, others into slots by Cheri Knight and Cheryl Wheeler and Linda Thompson, where performances proceed more predictably from songwriting and forms. Most especially, after having spent so long with Kathleen Edwards' Failer more recently than anything of Lucinda's, I have tried to turn the observed similarities between Kathleen and Lucinda back on Lucinda, as if Failer was a comprehensive survey of Lucinda's modes rather than glancing allusions to a haphazard subset of them. And although I don't think World Without Tears was constructed with any of these imposed biases in mind, it obliterates them at least as effectively as any conscious effort probably could have. It is harsh where my preconceptions suggest elegance, frank where I somehow anticipated elision, garish in places where I expect the kind of low light that renders everything soft shades of incandescence. I made this same mistake with Essence, I now remember, bringing too much to it instead of first asking what it wants to be, and I'm not sure whether I'm doubly foolish for doing it again, or if this time extrapolating from the other two records is more justified. But if Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Essence were drifting towards some kind of viable compromise between market labels and a history of commercially uncooperative independence, World Without Tears seems to suddenly notice.
The ensuing reaction is violent, and whether I gauge violence by intention or effect (or, for that matter, affect) determines, moment to moment, how many people I think this album is meant to alienate. On a few passes, notably the first and third, I wondered if it wasn't simply meant to alienate everybody. The rawest moments here sometimes feel forced to me, or if not forced, exactly, in individual execution, then inclusions out of proportion to their significance, back-porch jams from bored afternoons that shouldn't have earned a place here merely by having happened during the time. A few songs stand out, and maybe more than can comfortably be skipped, but their influence is even wider than their own scopes, and the days when this seems like a damaged record, to me, I hear its spidery cracks everywhere I listen. There are creaks in Lucinda's voice that I find myself wondering if she's straining on purpose, songs where I have to believe there were vocal takes in which she sounded less exhausted or more sober. Some days I can only think that Lucinda has deliberately made a record that will scare her new fans away again, and what did any of them do to deserve that?
The more closely I examine this record, in fact, the more it seems to me that it has been arranged to deliberately overstate its ugliness. When I go looking for isolated moments of ugliness to excise, I suddenly discover a second album hiding right inside the first one. Listen to the album again, if you have a machine convenient for this, without tracks seven, eight, ten and eleven. Stripped of these, it is a nine-song, forty-one-minute record that still sounds sad and haunted and painful in places, to me, but also redemptively empathetic and clear. The mournfully becalmed "Fruits of My Labor", as unglitzy a went-to-Hollywood song as you'll find, sways like a ghost waltz. "Righteously" simmers, twangs and sparks, Lucinda picking her way through a knot of reassurances and complaints, and when she runs out of words after a minute and a half, there's a long guitar solo and then the whole thing simply repeats, the seemingly conversational lines sounding twice as fraught in exact reiteration. The aching, pedal-steel tinged "Ventura" could be the introvert's answer to Everclear's "Santa Monica"; the blaring, restless "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings" slides from Dylan to X against snarled guitars and measured drum stomp. "Overtime" is a quavery 3/4 torch song that could have sounded like Patsy Cline were Lucinda's prettiest singing mode not so much more unsteady than smoky, and "Minneapolis" is delivered in a trance-like sigh that has some of the same timbre. "World Without Tears" is stately and unhurried. "Words Fell" is like the wind-scrubbed skeleton of "Leaving Las Vegas".
But even this abridgement for musical simplicity can't quite escape the underlying pain. It's not clear to me whether the lover in "Righteously" is hearing her, or whether, even if he listens closely, he'll know what John Coltrane is her emotional shorthand for. "Ventura" is an escape dream reduced to its most mundane dissolution, meager dinners and a weary parade of renewal rituals that don't get at any source of emptiness. "Overtime" wonders if there's no way to escape by your own conscious action. "Those Three Days" finds a narrator shattered by a brief affair, "Minneapolis" finds another one destroyed by something maybe even briefer. And "World Without Tears", itself, is the legend to the map of the inevitability of the rest of this: "If we lived in a world without tears, / How would heartbeats / Know when to stop? / How would blood know / Which body to flow outside of? / How would bullets find the guns?" It is a circular argument, of course. In a world without tears, they wouldn't. You can decide for yourself whether you're outside the circle or in it. Either this song means that pain can't be avoided, so we shouldn't try, or else it means that it's unnecessary, and only holds us as long as we let it. And if you find a third way to take this album, maybe you'll think of another reading of the title track to go with it.
But before you worry about new readings, you'll have to decide what to do about the other four songs. "Atonement", track seven, is a groaning, half-deconstructed, torn-speaker-cone blues squawk, and I'm not sure whether Lucinda's echoingly barked verses or her howled choruses are more unnerving. The musical arrangement of "Sweet Side", track eight, is gentler, but the choruses are one strictly repeated phrase over and over, and the whimsical, thickly accented verses could be from the encyclopedia entry that explains that rap is originally of Appalachian origin. The plodding, sing-song "People Talkin'", track ten, sounds to me like a parody of the dreariest self-pitying tendencies of old country music and old campfire folk laments, but then I notice that there's nothing obvious parodic about it. And the bitter Navajo-predicament poem "American Dream", track eleven, like a "Walk on the Wild Side" without anybody going "doot, doo-doot", sounds simply abandoned to me, beaten-down poverty not set in a context or converted to rage or recast with hope, but just left lying in the street where it fell, which might be the most poignant possible commentary, but makes a song I don't want to listen to no matter how aware I am that doing so might be important.
And I don't know whether this trick will work for you like it did for me, nor whether you'll feel like you need it to begin with, but if you do, and the abridged version helped you, then listen to it a few times more, and then go back and play the whole thing again. I only did this by accident, but find that somehow I can now hear both albums at once. I feel Lucinda crunch over shards as she turns corners, and they're at once slivers of emotional honestly prickling the sad album, and splinters of whatever the broken album is impaled upon. I hear the songs of loss and doubt, and then notice that the cruel twist that would ruin "Words Fell" as a finale never actually comes. In the sad version this is the hope that broken people can mend, and in the broken version it's the stubborn truth that between forgetting and limping, maybe even the things that can't be fixed can be lived with. I hear the album that could reach the people that came for the other two records, move them instead of just shoving them, and at the same time I hear the one that pretends it doesn't need anybody. And if other people can hear both, too, maybe they'll refuse to be shoved.
This is my narrative of this album, not Lucinda's. Maybe the two have little in common. But I don't think I would have thought of this stay-or-go solution without her, so I'm going to declare it her wisdom: Stay and go. Hurt, because pain is real and hurting is how we're built to absorb it, but know that even the things you can't evade can't define you. Be as kind to the things that are stronger than you as you are to the things you are stronger than. Sing in your true voice, but know that there's almost always some way you're afraid of in which it could be truer. Both readings of this album are mythologies, after all, as are Shania and Lucinda's seemingly irreconcilable notions of what could grow out of country music's roots, as are all the other readings and all the other songs. Art is mythologizing, inherently, even when it purports to stand precisely against that, and although some mythologies are deeper than others, deeper is only one direction in which you can excel. The real trick is not to hear the sad and ugly versions of World Without Tears at once, or to play the red and green mixes of Shania's Up! at the same time, it's to hear Shania and Lucinda at once when you listen to either of them. The trick is to feel transcendent silliness from within the surest death grip, and incapacitating waves of love when you see someone else's clothes in your laundry. The trick is to know that somebody is fleeing from everywhere you want to go, which means that it's pointless to travel, but only in the exact same sense that it's pointless to stay where you are. And all these records that deny each other coexist, and somebody checks CNN over a cell phone from Baghdad under attack. And it's the middle of the night, and it's morning.