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For The Love of Lyrics: Rickie Lee Jones, Lucinda Williams

[New York Times]

By Frank Bruni

Although this feature of the newsletter began by showcasing Aimee Mann and has included shout-outs to Joni Mitchell, it has been a tad man-heavy of late: Leonard Cohen was the star of its most recent installment, and Jason Isbell got the spotlight in the edition before that.

So today: women. A gallery of them. Beginning with one, Rickie Lee Jones, who hasn’t received any reader nominations but has a special place in my heart.

The early phase of her career enraptured me. To my mind, her second album, “Pirates,” released in 1981, is her masterpiece — indulgent and unwieldy, yes, but also wildly passionate, sonically grand and less conventional than its superb predecessor, “Rickie Lee Jones.” And like the best of her work, it’s a lyrics gold mine, at least if you’re OK with a hyperabundance of metaphors and conceits and with quick swerves from one to the other.

The first track, “We Belong Together,” epitomizes this richness and abandon. There’s an opening riff on the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” (“How could a Natalie Wood not get sucked/Into a scene so custom tucked”), which gives way to nautical allusions (“rooftop docks” that are vantage points for “the crosstown seas”) and leaves room for stand-alone mischief (“And you told her to stand tall when you kissed her/But that’s not where you were thinking”). The song has an epic sweep, packing a lifetime of yearning into five heady minutes.

Another singer-songwriter who’s expert at such sorcery is Lucinda Williams — and several of you have nominated her. “My drive-off-the-road song is ‘Sweet Old World,’” Susan Newbold of Prairie Village, Kan., wrote in an email, praising Williams’s work. “It still makes me cry every time I play it.”Me, too — well, it makes me misty. “See what you lost when you left this world” is the first line, followed soon by a gorgeously chosen inventory of pleasures and intimacies (“The breath from your own lips/The touch of fingertips”). “Sweet Old World” is the title track of an album that Williams released in 1992; much of her 1998 album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” a fan favorite, is just as masterly. (Thanks not only to Susan Newbold but also to Vic Williams of Reno, Nev., and Michele Dellinger of Manhattan, among others, for singling out Williams.)

And what about Mary Chapin Carpenter? (Marcia Snowden, Lawrenceville, N.J., and Leonard Naymark, Toronto, among others.) I’ve listened less to her than to Williams, so I was delighted to be reminded of such lyrical gems as “I Am a Town,” in which she envisions herself as a place that people pass through and fashions lines like these: “I am peaches in September and corn from a roadside stall/I’m the language of the natives. I’m a cadence and a drawl.”

While several of you urged consideration of the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, no one showered praise on his former wife Linda Thompson: The two achieved fame as a duo before breaking up. And while it’s true that he was considered the songwriter of the pair, as Jon Pareles explains in this excellent article in The Times about their work, her 1985 solo album, “One Clear Moment,” stands out not only for her singing but also for her lyrics.

In “Only a Boy,” she travels a chilling arc, from shrugging off a former lover’s possible hurt (“He’s only a boy, and what does he matter/What if his heart should tear”) to acknowledging how profoundly he haunts her. It’s a spare, short and stunning song.