LUCINDA WILLIAMS Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury)

Perhaps not yet recognised as part of the pantheon of great breakup albums, Lucinda Williams’ fifth album “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” is shot through with the shattered shards and fragments of a broken relationship, perhaps even more than, say, Rosanne Cash’s marvellous “Interiors”.

Opener “Right In Time” is practically musky with sensuality, a lonesome remembrance of a long-lost lover. Like many of these songs it has a definite sense of place – the first two tracks both mention kitchens, rooting them in some kind of domesticity, cosy or otherwise , and three of the album’s songs have place names for titles. The title track is naggingly disturbing; it seems like a sequence of unhappy childhood memories, shuffled like faded snapshots. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belies its Prince-inspired text message title, its warm, sumptuous vibe deepening as it shifts from an assortment of observations surrounding a dirty little juke joint where Robert Johnson plays guitar in the corner to a moment of looming emotional devastation. “Drunken Angel”, which opens with a dead ringer for the introduction to “Maggie May”, sounds as if it could be a tribute to or requiem for Kurt Cobain, but its subject is apparently one Blaze Foley, a Texas troubadour and friend of Townes Van Zandt. There’s a weary indulgence in her voice during “Lake Charles”, a vulnerability that surfaces again in the chorus of “Metal Firecracker” – “All I ask/Don’t tell anybody the secrets/I told you”. “Can’t Let Go” dovetails so seamlessly into Williams’ own material that it’s a jolt to discover that it’s a cover. “Still I Long For Your Kiss” aches with unsated desire, again, whilst “Joy”’s ragged, raw defiance could be the flipside of the same tattered relationship.

The production is exemplary throughout – hardly surprising with folk like Roy Bittan and Rick Rubin involved – and unobtrusive celebrity guest spots are scattered throughout the album, including appearances by Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and sometime Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton. In fact, it’s a measure of the artist’s perfectionism that even the apparently sparse songs such as “Jackson” are performed by an eight-strong ensemble. Although not as great as the astonishing “World Without Tears” – even at its most holleringest it seems as though Lucinda’s holding back, as if there’s a sense of polite restraint kicking in – “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” is still something of a country rocking singer songwriting masterclass.