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Lucinda Williams

If Lucinda Williams is such a genius, then how come she keeps making the same album?

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her 1998 breakthrough after years of obscurity, defined and perfected her earthy songwriting, filled with lust, longing, and exacting character detail. Its acclaim deserved, the record also painted her into a corner. No matter how many superlatives get thrown her way, she's had trouble surprising us since then.

Essence, the 2001 follow-up to Car Wheels, suffered by comparison, and while her newest, World Without Tears, is a step up, she's still struggling with life as an "established artiste." It may seem none too generous to quibble with such a considerable talent, but frankly, she is repeating herself. Again, we get the blues-drenched, hard-luck cases. Again, men let her down, break her heart, and don't return her calls. She keeps crafting these laments intelligently -- any "Ventura" or "Those Three Days" would instantly enliven country radio's drab schmaltz. But too much of World is unrelenting and predictable. She's given too much credit for being a great songwriter because she delivers nothing but bad news, as if heartbreak automatically guarantees visionary work. The older she gets, though, the less her gloom feels cathartic. It just feels stale.

When she does branch out from Car Wheels, the results are just questionable. "Atonement" might have been a hoot if Tom Waits had turned its religious fanaticism into a carnival grotesque. But in Lucinda's hands, it's just a bluesy swamp, self-consciously serious and overwrought. Later, "American Dream" is a so-so commentary on ruined lives. The music is moody enough, but the observations are standard Mellencamp-fleeces-Springsteen at its most '80s obvious.

For all its moaning and groaning, World Without Tears never stops you cold or leaves you breathless. If she wasn't so damned busy being a genius, maybe she could have had a little more fun here. As is, it's all too much of a drag.