The Ghosts of Highway 20
The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a goddamn journey of an album.
The Ghosts of Highway 20 declares its intentions from the beginning, with guitars panned heavy left and right, trading on washy drive and harmonics before the brushed drums come in. The album’s about space and spacing, and the delicacy of the hook — “you couldn’t cry if you wanted to” — that precedes the elongated chorus, just “even your thoughts are dust” over and over again. And then, somehow, “Dust” bleeds into a solo that’s as delicate and high as you could imagine.
If there’s a three song run on Ghosts, it has to be “Death Came,” “Doors of Heaven,” and “Louisiana Story,” the last of which is probably the album’s greatest achievement. Like the album as a whole, “Louisiana Story” is on paper overlong, but in practice absolutely gorgeously paced, exactly as lackadaisical and meandering as it needs to be. With a chorus that could be onomatopoeized as “wuhhhh, wuhhh” and lyrics like “On a good day, mama’d make us sweet coffee milk. / On a bad day she’d cuss when something got spilt,” it isn’t that the nine minutes fly by, but that they all feel earned. Coming after the blues-rocky demand of “Doors of Heaven” to “open up the doors of heaven and let me in” and the almost twinkly guitars of “Death Came,” “Louisiana Story” somehow exists as both culmination and respite, simultaneously.
Williams’ cover of Springsteen’s “Factory” is likely the ‘a-ha’ moment of the album, in uncovering how and what it means. Springsteen’s original is intentionally abstracted, especially geographically; the whole point is to tell the story of working men, regardless of place of work. Williams, without changing a lyric, makes it sound like the most situated song ever written. There’s a weight to this change; what once was a song that potentially signalled for class solidarity against geography is made to become something less universal. But then, being situated is hardly a disavowal of universality in favor of particularity, as though being in space was for the local and against the global. And much of what allows her cover to feel as it does has to do with her voice.
If there’s a critique of country music singing, it’s that it can tend toward the impenetrable in a way that isn’t apparently aesthetic. The twang never gets to be an expression of anything other than the whole, which is Country, as if it was nothing other than a note struck on the banjo. It’s always more than that too, of course, a performative marker of race and class and gender and histories, and of broadly-held beliefs and material relations to all of these things.
Coupled with ideas of how music is appreciated, how good or impressive singers are the ones who stretch words or syllables to the breaking point of unintelligibility — whether in terms of length, alteration, pitch, whatever — without breaking, and the deck’s rigged from the jump. Twang doesn’t count toward that point; it’s always already past it, and already also tangential to it. You can modulate it with smoke or technique all you want, make it mellifluous or distinctively grating, age-worn or infantilized; short of sanding it down, nothing really changes.
The easy thing would be to say that Lucinda Williams just doesn’t give a damn. The reality’s more complicated, of course. The relative absence of banjos and mandolins and fiddles changes the textures of class and history on Ghosts. And that’s how the factory moves from rallying cry to space; in the timbre of Williams’ voice, in the quality of the stories she tells, the ghosts aren’t the dead. They’re the spaces full of living, and absence.