Essence, the 2001 follow-up to Car Wheels, suffered by comparison, and while Williams's newest, World Without Tears, is a step up, again we get the blues-drenched hard-luck cases. She keeps crafting these laments intelligently, but too much of World is unrelenting and predictable.
When Williams does branch out from Car Wheels, the results are 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 obvious. As is, it's all too much of a drag.