The Ghosts of Highway 20 features 14 tracks spread over two discs, the shortest of which is just over three minutes and the longest just under 13, with most averaging around the five minute mark there are times when some might find themselves thinking some pruning might have been in order. After all, there’s only so many drifting melody songs with languorous minimalist guitar lines that you can take at one sitting. Right? Even if it is Bill Frisell on the guitar (well, him and Greg Leisz on the right and left channels, respectively). Absolutely not. This road could go on forever.
Much laid down in the same sessions and with the same musicians that produced her previous double disc release, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (but which didn’t make that short list), it’s moody, intense and frazzled, Williams’ mesmerisingly dry, cracked and swallowed ravaged vocals (there are times when you have to concentrate to get the words) the aural equivalent of slowly dehydrating in a desert under a baking sun. And I mean that in a good way.
Taken as a whole, it meditates on loss, death and mortality, as much informed by her own years as the death of her father last year, a theme that stares you in the face on the nihilistic six minute opener Dust (“There’s a sadness so deep the sun seems black….you couldn’t cry if you wanted to. Even your thoughts are dust”), the similarly lengthy and brooding Death Came (where southern gothic and the Old Testament collide) with its skeletal guitars and Butch Norton’s rumbling drums and the drawled country gospel blues Doors of Heaven (“I think I’m finally tired of living, let me in”) on which she plays rhythm guitar. It’s one of two songs about moving on to the other side, the other being the more countrified Patsy Cline/Louvins waltzing If There’s a Heaven (Val McCallum depping for Frisell here) where she prays rather than sings “when you go, you let me know if there’s a heaven out there.”
And it’s not actual death, it’s a living one. With its jazzy percussion flavours and bluesy guitars, If My Love Could Kill is an anguished song about Alzheimer’s, the “slayer of words, murderer of poets…who robbed me of your memory…of your beautiful mind” while she delivers a pointed, desolate desert reading of Springsteen’s Factory where “men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.”
However, it’s not all about death. Sex and love have a place here too. For the former she provides suitably lubricative music for the carnality of Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth, a vision of sexual healing straight out of Robert Mapplethorpe in which the narrator offers to revitalize tired marriages (“I’ll furnish the red hot kisses and the hole that wakes up sleeping sickness in your soul”), while the latter is variously shaded with the experience of hurt (the breathy, 3am jazz brushed I Know All About It), devotion (another Cline waltz through Place In My Heart) and a defiant optimism about making it though (the gorgeous anthemically swelling Can’t Close The Door To Love).
And then there’s the past to deal with. On the frisky, y’all come styled country (she even introduces the guitar break with ‘take it away’) Bitter Memory she kicks unwelcome ones out the door while the softly sun, slow and measured nine minute Louisiana Story spins a Tennessee Williams-styled deep south tale of a girl growing up with an abusive Bible preaching daddy while the steady rolling seven-and-a-half-minute title track itself, named for the Interstate that runs from Georgia to Texas with its “rundown motels and faded billboards”, speaks of the way the past and its ghosts never let go.
It all comes to a close with Faith & Grace, an experimental, improvisational twelve minutes plus with a steady ticking beat, the guitars and percussion (Ras Michael on Jamaican hand drums) following Williams as, just like Jim Morrison took on shamanistic tones, she channels revivalist preachers exhorting “get right with God” declaring in an epiphany of acceptance and resolution “faith and grace will help me run this race.” Long may the finishing line be many miles away.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Highway 20 Records
Order via Amazon