Since her breakthrough in 1998 with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams has developed a reputation for having too much talent and taste to make a bad record. Little Honey (Lost Highway), however, finds both her talent and her taste in rather short supply.
Or maybe it's just her energy level. For most of Little Honey, Williams sounds hung over, groaning and slurring about the frailty of the flesh as if her own were stretched to the breaking point. While such brokenness reinforces the skeletal poignancy of the vertically yearning "Heaven Blues" and the horizontally acute "Rarity," it nearly undoes "Tears of Joy" and "Jailhouse Tears," which, for all their crying, evoke not rivers but deserts.
Deserts, of course, can inspire spiritual renewal. But what Williams seems mainly intent on renewing is her middle-aged libido, and even in this she is only partially successful. For all its Rolling Stones-like energy and blues-steeped double entendres, "Honey Bee" makes hedonistic abandonment feel like work rather than play, as if the sexual fervor it ostensibly celebrates were actually a vain attempt to reconnect with a misspent youth or to uproot the deeply imbedded memories of past failures.
A similar desperation afflicts the R-rated profanity in "Rarity" and "Jailhouse Tears." For such language to intensify rather than deflate, it must at the very least sound spontaneous, a fact to which Williams, who lays into her expletives with an unbecomingly premeditated heavy-handedness, sounds oblivious.
The one subject for which she maintains a feel is life as a rock 'n' roller. From "Real Love" to "Little Rock Star" to her cover of AC/DC's "Long Way to the Top," she clearly knows the terrain-and that those who travel the road running through it get both more and less than they bargained for.