“Baby, you’re one piece of work,” Lucinda Williams sings during one of the arguably lighter moments of The Ghosts of Highway 20. The tune this confession seeps out of, Can’t Close the Door on Love, is aural scar tissue — a rumination sung with such slurred, sagging and exhaustive reflection that you almost miss the hope and trust waiting at its core. Williams is a champion of these battle-worn laments. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is — bliss, breakup or death. Williams writes and sings as if she has been through the wringer and then some. But the true beauty is how she is always left standing.
The Ghosts of Highway 20 is Williams’ second double-disc opus in only 16 months — a remarkable feat given her reputation for long layovers between albums. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to its predecessor, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Both are sparsely arranged, swirl around the guitar exchanges of Greg Leisz and jazz/Americana journeyman Bill , and embrace their vivid emotions with little concern for convention. The songs are often lengthy — mostly four to six minutes, with each disc ending, respectively, with nine- and 12-minute epics. More than that, they are unhurried. There are a few electric outbursts, but The Ghosts of Highway 20 plays out largely as a boozy séance, with streams of contemplation and unrest colored by an ambience that is, indeed, rather ghostly.
Death Came, for instance, rolls along like the river that serves as imagery for a life Williams almost seductively laments, while Bitter Memory jangles along with a honky tonk drive that makes the tune sound like an invited hangover. There also is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Factory that is slowed from a blue-collar anthem into a ragged but affirmative family dirge.
The mammoth tunes, though, are extraordinary. Louisiana Story parallels two childhood remembrances: one of open family warmth, the other ruled by stricter laws of the Bible and, eventually, fear. Both are sung in succession, with no variance whatsoever in Williams’ world-weary singing.
The longer Faith & Grace is a combustible revival that uses its main chorus (“Faith and grace will help me run this race”) along with the title of a thematically similar 2001 Williams tune, Get Right with God, as mantras over fragments and washes of guitar melodies from Frisell that add their own level of righteousness.
Sometimes they’re ghosts. In other instances, the flesh and blood of the here and now do the talking. Williams channels them all into another beguiling séance of an album that takes the spirit even closer to the bone.