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Lucinda Williams, ‘World Without Tears’ (Lost Highway)

Lucinda Williams’ 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was a masterpiece haunted by the drama of its own creation: band lineups shuffled, sounds tweaked, producers replaced. But like 2001’s Essence, World Without Tears came easier–and it sounds like it. Williams brought in producer Mark Howard (partly because of his work with Bob Dylan) and ended up essentially cutting the album live in the studio.

On most of World, love, like happiness, exists only in the past tense. The present is for looking back, nursing regrets triggered by the smell of flowers or the sight of snow. WhileEssence was lyrically spare, World marks Williams’ return to the painful sensuality of the pecific–“your pale skin, your sexy crooked teeth.” “Ventura” charts a day in the life of someone trying to pick up the pieces: “Decide I’m gonna make myself/ A little something to eat / Get a can down off the shelf / Maybe a little something sweet.”

If this sounds like an atmospheric breakup album, it’s not–at least not entirely. “Atonement” is a down-and-dirty blues song that attacks organized religion, and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings” is a Stones-style rocker about a Prince Charming with a drug habit. By now, such drunken angels are stock characters for Williams, but she’s never before limned their contradictions with such force. She’s in love, and at the same time well aware that this man could be the subject of her next breakup ballad. It’s a supremely self-aware hard-luck lament, and along with a few other songs on World, it could be the closest Williams has come to that perfect, elusive sound she’s always been after.