My favorite albums: ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

Mercury Records via

Lucinda Williams makes me swoon.

Her voice is capable of profound ache, smoldering sexuality and a shrug of wistfulness, giving rich colors to the often straightforward arrangements of her terrific songs.

Never have those qualities been more apparent than on her 1998 album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

The album didn’t come easily. Williams, already known as a painstaking worker — her previous LPs, “Lucinda Williams” and “Sweet Old World,” had come out in 1988 and 1992, respectively — started work on “Car Wheels” in 1995. She had a falling out with her first producer, Gurf Morlix, and shelved the almost-done work. (Morlix said “Sweet Old World” had been done “two and a half times,” and “Car Wheels” continued the start-stop-redo pattern.) The E Street Band’s Roy Bittan produced the version that finally emerged.

But oh, was it worth the wait.

She grabs ahold of you right away with “Right In Time.”

I take off my watch and my earrings
My bracelets and everything
Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling
Oh my baby

I’m blushing just typing those lyrics. Has there ever been a more rapturous song about pleasuring yourself? I’m surprised the PMRC didn’t slap an “adults only” advisory sticker on the cover.

Other songs come from a distance. “Drunken Angel,” about the Austin songwriter Blaze Foley, is sympathetic and cool: “Sun came up it was another day / And the sun went down you were blown away,” she begins. “Drunken angel / You’re on the other side.”

Later there’s the mournful “Greenville.” “Empty bottles and broken glass / Busted down doors and borrowed cash / Borrowed cash, oh the borrowed cash / Go back to Greenville,” she sings, more in sorrow than in anger.

I’ve been hot and cold on Williams over the years. “Side of the Road,” from her debut album, is still one of my all-time favorites, the decree (or is it a plea?) of a lover that still needs her freedom. (“And I wondered about the people who lived in it / And I wondered if they were happy and content / Were there children and a man and a wife / Did she love him and take her hair down at night …” Chills.) But she can be abrupt, as if her emotions were too strong for the song she’s trying to sing or write and she just said fuck it. Her post-“Car Wheels” albums haven’t always measured up.

But then again, what can? “Car Wheels” sustains all the way through, whether in her originals or the cover of Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go.” It can rock hard — “Can’t Let Go” would make a punk band proud — and opens its heart. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Even if you’re swooning.





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