Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr Lucinda Williams has always been cool and has always made equally cool albums. A quick glance at her discography reveals a body of work filled with twists and turns that take us through the familiar and the largely unpredictable. Because she hit her commercial stride in the years just before folks stopped buying records, she hasn’t been afforded all the commercial attention afforded many of her peers. Because she doesn’t write catchy three-minute songs (although she’s perfectly capable; see “Passionate Kisses”) she’s not known for radio staples the way that, say, even Bob Dylan scored back in the day. But you can always find Lucinda Williams if you know where to look for her. Predictably, spending a large part of her life on the road, Williams was inspired to consider a route that didn’t get the kind of press that the infamous Route 66 did. This passage is, of course, the route mentioned in this new album’s title, a stretch that goes from South Carolina to Texas and, as Williams herself says, also traces much of the life she’s lived. One of those places is the road. In 2015, she took to the highways of America, backed by the band Buick 6. She delivered some righteously powerful performances with that outfit and brought two-thirds of that group into the studio with her this time out. Bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton are joined by legendary guitarist Bill Frisell and the amazing studio ace Greg Leisz. The high caliber band meets up with some of the most high caliber material Williams has penned in the latter years of her career and some of her best overall. The record is, spirit-wise, a culmination/amalgamation of her live sets (grooves that are tracked deep into the earth, songs that seem lived in, maybe even haunted) and her knowledge of how to construct an album (the emotional highs and lows, the appropriate progression of moods). Williams has always been an expert lyricist and she doesn’t disappoint here on a record inspired by a route that never got the kind of play that Route 66 did. This passage is the one mentioned in the album’s title, a stretch that slithers from South Carolina to Texas and, as Williams herself says, also traces much of the life she’s lived. And if this isn’t a full-on memoir, there are elements of such a journey here. With 14 songs spread across two discs, the album is a lengthy one, but the investment of time and emotions are more than worth it. The record opens with “Dust,” a track built upon a poem written Williams’ late father, Miller Williams. Musically, it’s a gorgeous ramble that spotlights Frisell’s trademark lyricism and Leisz’s uncanny ability to complement lyrics with the lightest of touches. Lyrically, it’s dark and sad and a reminder of loneliness and the transitory existence we are all trapped in. Of course in the hands of Williams, the song transcends the binary world of happy or sad and becomes something else entirely, aided by the prolonged dénouement that brings the song to its final resting place. “I Know All About It” creeps slowly from the ether to our ears, slipping into existence like a virus finding purchase in the bloodstream. It would be redundant to call it haunting, but it is, seemingly born from some kind of late-night session where we become most intimate with the night and ourselves. And Williams has always created that sense of intimacy and immediacy very well in her recordings, giving the listener the sense that the music is being born before their very ears. That’s the case with “Place in My Heart,” one of her most memorable and poignant ballads to date and easily one of her best, most convincing vocal performances here or anywhere else. “Doors of Heaven” carries a patina of ancient country music, as though it just wandered in from an Oklahoma dust storm, sat down on the couch and commanded a beer and a joint. The nine-minute epic “Louisiana Story,” which closes out the first disc, doesn’t lack for either emotional or musical punch. And punch is also what her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” offers; in her hands it sounds new as well, as though plucked from the same muse that inspired the other songs while also remaining very much a Springsteen tune. Although there are haunting moments throughout, it’s the title track that is sometimes the most unsettling, as its melodies and rhythms seem to dance with the danger of the unknown and the song itself doesn’t resolve into anything that feels the least bit safe. There is at least one moment of something approaching sweetness, the penultimate number “If There’s a Heaven,” one of several songs she’s written (“Jackson” being another) that could easily double as a hymn. This one is also a set up for the real closer and the real epic of the album, the nearly 13-minute “Faith and Grace,” which could have easily stretched out to twice that length for the hypnotic feel it gives off and the joy we find it meditating on its subtle changes and Williams’ raw power performance. There, as on the entire album, Williams takes risks and ones that frequently take her into uncharted territory. It’s refreshing to hear her taking those risks, but what’s even better is hearing her succeed at what she sets out to do.