Dedicated Lucinda Williams fans are wont to insist that her work has maintained a steady trajectory since 1998's earthshaking Car Wheels on a Gravel Road record, but that assertion is highly debatable at best, and at times along the way the singer/songwriter's offerings have quite frankly veered queasily toward self-parody.
With all due empathy, it's gotta suck to go in short order from sensitive-soul-with-indie-cred to Time magazine's Best Songwriter in America (or was it Newsweek, who gives a shit?) and a brand new and daunting set of expectations. Understandably, Williams got defensive and whiny and no matter how deeply her fervent core following identified with her struggles, from a more objective vantage point the music suffered.
The good news here is that Louisiana Lu's got her sass back on for Little Honey, easily the troubadour's most consistently inspired and listenable collection since Car Wheels and slam-dunk testimony to the rejuvenating power of a stand-up guy's love. Now married (to album co-producer Tom Overby) and finally off the romantic roller coaster that has proven both her artistic talisman and undoing, Williams is freed to once again let her feral instincts do the talking with sterling support from Buick 6, a righteously ragged back-up band anchored by guitarists Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster.
To kick this rambling wreck into gear, Williams rolls out "Real Love," one of several paeans to her newfound domestic stability that run the emotional gamut from tearful gratitude to well-lubricated lust. A rambunctious melodic rocker that evokes earlier days when she was a relatively innocent Nashville aspirant (remember "Passionate Kisses"?), "Real Love" adds 15 years of hard-earned highway grit and spit courtesy of Pettibone and Lyster's buzz-sawing guitars.
Throughout the album, it's simply a welcome kick in the britches to hear the occasionally dour gal having some fun. On "Honey Bee," a gleeful, throbbing celebration of carnality, Williams sings in a lascivious growl never heard before on record. "Jailhouse Tears" pairs the singer in vocal tandem with Elvis Costello and features some of the spunkiest honky-tonk kiss-off lines you're ever bound to hear. And you know the girl's feeling her oats when she closes the set with a raunchy roadhouse cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top."
Yeah, a few of the ballads meander and wobble in the way Williams' weaker songs tend to, but in full command of her wistful, starkly poetic mode she can send a chill of recognition straight down your backbone, as on "If Wishes Were Horses," where she sings, "But if wishes were horses / I'd have a ranch / Come on and give me another chance."
Hell, I'll give her as many chances as she needs, because every time Lucinda Williams finds her sweet spot the payoff is substantial and everybody wins. Little Honey represents a welcome return to fighting form.