See What You Lost When You Left This World

When word broke Monday that Tom Petty was gravely ill, I poured myself a tequila sunset (a tequila sunrise, minus everything but the tequila) and played one of my favorite albums. It wasn’t a Hearbreakers album; it was Lucinda Williams’ Sweet Old World, which she originally released in 1992, but reissued last week in honor of its 25th anniversary.

Most reissues are just the original album—perhaps gussied up by superior technology that wasn’t available way back when—with a few bonus tracks tossed in to justify the super-deluxe price. The Sweet Old World reissue has a quartet of bonus tracks, but Williams and her current band—which is a whole lot different than the ’92 lineup—re-cut what amounts to a live album within the confines of a studio.

The reissue is both jammier and more ponderous, with Williams’ voice aging like a deep, dark port as the songs are slowed to a languid pace. Listening to it as Petty clung to life, my heart hit the pit of my stomach. Williams was the last artist to open for Petty during his three-show run late in Septemer at Hollywood Bowl, and her “Change the Locks” is among the very few tracks he ever covered on one of his own studio albums (the soundtrack for the Edward Burns film She’s the One.) 

Williams is only two years younger than Petty, with the pair sharing a southern upbringing and an occasional appetite for self-destruction. On the reissue’s title track, Williams sounds ultra-craggy, as if she’s pantomiming a knock on death’s door to match the morbid chorus. The following song, “Little Angel, Little Brother,” gets the duo’s chronology wrong, but packs a ferocious emotional wallop. In a southern accent, she recounts the most intimate details of her sibling’s life. He was severely inebriated, not dead, although the tune’s been prone to misinterpretation.

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta's just a motel room to me.