While assured of her status as a great American singer, Lucinda Williams has never been most people's idea of an easy one--someone whose music you'd trot out at a wedding, say, or any other event where keening is frowned on. Williams isn't po-faced; she's so tough that misery, mostly in the form of doomed men and rotten luck, never stands a chance. It's just that in the Williams songbook, misery never seems to stop coming around, which is why the first track on her ninth album, Little Honey, is such a shock. It's called "Real Love," and it's not about losing real love or a tortured glimpse of real love but about finding it once and for all.
Williams is too sophisticated to song-write her own bio, but she's also too shrewd to ignore it, and her engagement to manager Tom Overby (who co-produced Little Honey) seems to have inspired a challenge: say something new about love and happiness. Lyric-sheet readers may wonder if she's up to it. Her usual evocations and minimalist stanzas are replaced by lines like "You're drinking in a bar in Amsterdam/ I'm thinking baby far out, be my man," proof that love and goofiness are but a beer apart.
But the glory of Little Honey is less its poetry than its ability to sustain happiness as a mood. There is Williams' glorious voice, of course--cracking in the verses and lubricating the choruses of "Tears of Joy"; drolly channeling Tammy Wynette to Elvis Costello's George Jones on "Jailhouse Tears"--but the critical decision was to make this a guitar-dominated album. It's not just that it's the warmest instrument in rock, country and blues (Williams' favorite playgrounds) but that Doug Pettibone is the best unknown guitarist in all three. On song after song, Pettibone's six-string acts as Williams' adoring foil, flirting with her between the lyrics on "Circles and Xs," replying with great gusts of seduction on "Knowing." On the album-ending AC/DC cover, they just roll around and laugh. It's exactly the kind of thing you'd play at a wedding.