Interstate (Highway) 20, running 1500 miles across the American south from Texas to South Carolina, clearly means something to Lucinda Williams. Not only has she named her record label for it, Highway 20 Records, but it has inspired and informed the 14 tracks on The Ghosts Of Highway 20. With this, her twelfth studio album, Williams has delivered exactly that: not a loose collection of songs, tangentially related, that can be consumed piecemeal, but an album, an anthology of music and narratives that is best taken as a whole.
Opening with the six minute twenty Dust and closing with the thirteen minute meditation of Faith & Grace, with only three sub-five minute songs in between, The Ghosts Of Highway 20 is not an album that lends itself to casual listening. This is by no means a bad thing. Great art has always posed a challenge for the audience to surmount, and in an age where media, technology, and consumption habits, are focused on single, four minute, soundbites from musicians, it is refreshing to see an artist bring forth an album which needs to be consumed as a whole, and where individual songs are granted the time and space to grow and unfold as they need to.
Each listen, while demanding a commitment on the part of the listener, is more rewarding than the last, and it is through these repeat listenings that the listener truly gains an appreciation for Williams’ lyricism and the quality of the backing musicians. Bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton never misplace a beat. Guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz provide gorgeous soundscapes, such as on Dust and I Know All About It, to counterpoint Williams’ lyrics and distinctive vocal style. The Ghosts Of Highway 20 would be greatly diminished if any one of these elements were missing.
Despite being a dark, melancholic, album, it avoids becoming an overwhelming burden to the listener. Louisiana Story, following after the gospelesque Doors of Heaven, is musically light and airy and, placed as it is in the middle of the album, refreshes the listener. The titular The Ghosts of Highway 20 builds in intensity but ultimately resolves in a satisfying anticlimax, and in many ways this foreshadows the fact that the remainder of the album is lighter in tone, musically at least.
At 63 years of age Lucinda Williams has produced a wonderful and coherent album which should stand as an exemplar of what an album should be.