After seemingly coming out of nowhere to be hailed as a major songwriter and roots music stylist, it tookLucinda Williams four years to prepare the follow-up to her masterful 1988 eponymous album. When it finally arrived, Sweet Old World proved to be every bit the equal of its predecessor, if not even better. Although Sweet Old World isn't really a concept album, it often feels like one. Its first half is dominated by the title track and "Pineola," two stunning meditations on suicide. Their sense of tragedy is reinforced with the closing cover of Nick Drake's "Which Will," and their shadow hangs heavy over the rest of the album. Several character portraits ponder where and why their subjects' lives went wrong; in this context, the dead-end situations seem that much more tragic and final. Moreover, when Williams offers an emotionally complex love ballad or a sexy blues strut, it's hard to take them as truly celebratory; here, the singer sounds as though she wants to appreciate who she has while she still can. That's also why "Little Angel, Little Brother" doesn't come off as remotely sentimental; the affectionate tribute works so well that, sandwiched between "Sweet Old World" and "Pineola," Williams' brother sounds like the suicide victim (it was actually a family friend). Williams' voice glows with the same warmth, for although it's limited in range, it's also a gorgeous instrument that Williams has learned to manipulate for maximum impact. Stylistically, Sweet Old World is similar to Lucinda Williams, juggling both the sounds and instruments of country, folk, blues, and rock & roll. It might not explode with confidence in the manner of Lucinda Williams, but Sweet Old World is no less vital; it's a gorgeous, elegiac record that not only consolidates but expands Williams' ample talents.