By Paul T. Mueller
Why would an artist remake a widely praised and much-loved album from early in her career? In the case of This Sweet Old World, Lucinda Williams’ fresh take on her Sweet Old World from 1992, only Williams really knows. But the new album can speak for itself as an ambitious project that mostly succeeds, while leaving a few things to be desired.
The remake resembles the original in several respects. It includes the original 12 tracks, in slightly different order (one of them, “He Never Got Enough Love,” is retitled as “Drivin’ Down a Dead End Street” and features additional verses and a different chorus). The instrumental backing is similar, featuring two guitars, drums and a bass. Williams’ current touring band – Buick 6, consisting of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton – provides the basis this time, assisted by Greg Leisz on guitar and lap steel and engineer and mixer David Bianco on organ.
The most noticeable difference, at least on first listen, is Williams’ singing. In 1992 she sounded like a poetic singer-songwriter, grounded in folk and blues but still exploring her place in the music world – a little bit shy, a little bit uncertain. A quarter century on, the diffident vocals have been replaced by a confident but weathered version with a smaller range, both acoustic and emotional, than Willliams’ younger voice.
The feelings are still there – the pain of unrequited love (“Six Blocks Away”), the longing for connection (“Something About What Happens When We Talk”), the joy of real love (“Lines Around Your Eyes”), the shock of suicide (“Pineola”) – but at times they feel muted. Maybe that’s down to the wear and tear of 25 years in the music business, or the sheer number of times Williams has sung many of these songs, or the inevitable temporal disconnect between the woman who wrote the songs and the woman she’s become. In any case, with Williams having co-produced the album, it’s clear that this is how she wants to present these songs today.
On the plus side, and without taking anything away from the original, it’s hard to say enough good things about the playing on the new album. The interaction between Mathis, who seemingly can do anything he wants to with an electric guitar, and the equally virtuosic Leisz is nothing short of sublime. Their parts soar above the solid rhythmic foundation provided by Sutton and Norton, with Bianco adding keyboard flourishes as needed.
The album includes four bonus tracks – Williams’ excellent country blues tune “Dark Side of Life,” the traditional “Factory Blues,” the cryptic “What You Don’t Know,” by Americana icons Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal, and John Scott Sherrill ‘s “Wild and Blue,” which was a 1982 hit for John Anderson.