Warm up the TiVo, Lucinda Williams fans. On World Without Tears, she's a sixty-minute woman, and boy, she'll kill you if you get up. But she's not serving the slow-cooked cactus blues of her best work; Tears instead catches Williams midmarinade, still refrigerator-cool and undone. Decided I'm gonna make myself a little something to eat, begins "Ventura," a despairing waltz that gives Williams enough time to win a chili cookoff. Pedal steel that dips like a sunset and then rises like a full moon nudges Williams through the slight melody, and the lyrics sting like the memory of salt. But as on most of Tears, Williams sacrifices compactness without deepening the song's texture. Even the bike-chain beatdown "Atonement" (on which Williams' delivery has a puzzlingly Ethel Mermanesque roundness) runs out of fury before it can trudge out of the muddy waters.
For all the leather-clad, boot-heel-on-balls force of Williams the performer, for all the bloodshot sensualism of her lyrics, the dilated, diluted songs on the ironically titled World Without Tears are about as fuel-efficient as an old Buick. The satisfied sighs and rolling refrains of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road give way to the clink of bottle against glass and moans that echo in an empty house -- sounds, for the first time in Williams' career, of self-pity.