Unearths and reexamines early gems
Lucinda Williams has crafted an argument both for and against revisiting her 1992 album Sweet Old World with her new(ish) rerecorded and resequenced version (with four new songs), This Sweet Old World. On one hand, we can clearly see the sturdy quality of the songs on a solid album that regrettably fell through the crack between career highlights (1988s breakout Lucinda Williams and 1998s magnum opus Car Wheels On a Gravel Road). On the other, it’s hard to argue that Williams largely outdoes her original renditions here and has created a wholly more satisfying album – not one that renders its antecedent null but, of the two, the one that you’ll want to spend more time with.
With her touring and studio band comprised of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton, Williams recorded This Sweet Old World in a brisk ten days and, so doing, imbued the songs with a rawness and primacy lacked by the comparatively tidy originals. The band nails a mean blend of bluesy swamp murk and garage grease that perfectly evokes Williams’ balanced evocations of glory and grotesquerie in the American South.
The only sonic quality that has technically waned would be the singer’s voice, but it’s a controversial point: Williams has always been a vocalist of a grittier ilk and the frayed drawl she now conjures suits the mood her music has always set. There are moments – like the tender “Something About What Happens When We Talk” or “Hot Blood,” which she formerly sang with a ribald wolflike howl in the verses – where one misses her erstwhile brightness, dexterity and clarity, but by and large her maturing as a vocalist has yielded greater confidence and emotional command.
The arrangements and words are mostly consistent with their originals with the exception of “Drivin’ Down A Dead End Street,” a lyrically augmented take on the former “He Never Got Enough Love” that deepens the impact of its despondent tale of moral obliteration. The new songs join the ranks of the elders seamlessly, with “Factory Blues” and “What You Don’t Know” standing out especially.
In the end, how a listener feels about this album will be an individual expression in itself. It’s hard to imagine someone uniformly preferring the new or the old versions of these songs – favorites are likelier to be plucked from each. I may never need to revisit the 1992 “Pineola” after hearing what I consider its definitive recording here. Likewise, it’s harder to enjoy the swampified “Which Will” when I so cherish the spare, folksy original. But This Sweet Old World finishes as the more roundly assured, vibrant album and worth additional merit for exhuming some forgotten treasures from Williams’ consistently accomplished career. It’s no vain, hollow nostalgia project – more a careful examination of a multifaceted object from a different angle, through weathered eyes. Williams, in her mastery, grants that experience singularity and value.