Personally and commercially, The Highway is Holly Williams’ debut album.
Of course, one can’t completely disregard her previous two albums; but they basically symbolize Williams’ story of the 2000s. She had one foot in the music business from her obvious family lineage, but was unsure if it was the way she wanted to spend her life. And those two albums – 2004’s The Ones We Never Knew and 2009’s Here With Me – were confusing mishmashes vying for both commercial success and critical acclaim. Not to say that one can’t have both, but Williams didn’t achieve either mark anyway.
With The Highway, however, Williams shed any past artistic blemishes and found her true voice. Released on her own Georgiana imprint, The Highway, like all great albums, showed a level of care in its composition; Williams became aware of her family legacy, but she went beyond to find her own voice, too. Of course, by making that the thematic undercurrent of the entire project, The Highway may be the typical “redemptive” project one would expect after such a length of time, but it even subverts expectations in that sense.
Very rarely does Williams make herself the focus of the album, though when she does, she’s but one of many misshapen antiheroes featured here. She wants to honor that aforementioned legacy, but there’s a part of her, like on the title track, where she struggles with the common guilt of leaving her family behind to chase that dream; and even though she does love touring and the music-making process, she’d rather do it on her own terms, rather than try to live up to any expectations. No, she never really settles on a definitive answer for what she’ll do moving forward, but if anything, that’s what gives this album a lack of judgment. The scope always looks outward, and the focus never shies from detailing the entire picture of the situation. And even if The Highway is told from multiple perspectives, Williams notably always sings the song as intended – she’s not about to look afar at those misshapen characters when she understands firsthand what it’s like to have all eyes on you, after all.
So she sings from the perspective of an alcoholic wife on “Drinkin’” trying to talk sense into her alcoholic husband, knowing full well they’re both really just headed for the same downward spiral; she sings from the perspective of a wayward boy sick of living up to his preacher father’s expectations on “Railroads,” wanting only to map out his own course in life without having it handed to him; she sings from the perspective of a daughter berating her dying mother from choosing alcohol over her loved ones on “Giving Up” – angry, miserable, yet self-aware enough to know deep down it wasn’t really her mother’s choice to make. It’s easy to take a side in many of these scenarios, yet as the songs unfurl, those sides becomes even more ambiguous.
Of course, for as heavy as The Highway gets, the key is its deceptive simplicity. Williams certainly doesn’t sugarcoat any of these scenarios, and the rich level of detail shows how her songwriting improves greatly here. But that simplicity also stems toward the album’s instrumentation and production, dialed back considerably from Williams’ past projects, yet shaded in just enough for the warmth to shine through and the cracks to still show; it’s purposefully unpolished. It’s also purposefully low-key and looking to draw in attention to its other elements. I might not be wild about the fiddle outro of “Drinkin,” which, while good, feels incredibly out of place there, but the somber swell of faint acoustics and piano driving “Gone Away From Me” help give that track that poignancy it deserves. There’s also the darker, rollicking momentum the electric guitars give “Railroads” to add tension to that aforementioned divide between a boy and his father. “Let You Go,” while lacking the lyrical tightness of other tracks here, more than makes up for it with its droopier guitar and mandolin interplay for a song that sounds fiercely sharp.
It should also come as no surprise that Williams is in top form here, too. Again, like the album’s naturally unpolished nature, Williams’ voice has a ragged, lived-in quality; capable of delivering a track like “Without You” with a natural sense of soul while managing to sound desperately convincing on the album’s darker moments. It’s just as easy to draw a connecting line, thematically, between “Railroads” and the title track, and when that connection is established, it’s not surprising to hear Williams deliver those cries of independence with her full gusto. “Gone Away With Me” is a masterpiece by all means, and, like with most tracks on The Highway, it’s mostly concerned with capturing a moment in time and going further with the details from there; but it’s also the only moment to capture Williams at a younger age, trying to grapple with the concept of death and having that concept warped by first watching her family lay to rest an infant, forcing her to learn a common lesson of how time really works. Again, there’s a lack of judgment from Williams on this album, but all of the lessons learned come with their own prices; and while The Highway forced Williams to practically reinvent herself to understand her greater artistic ambitions, it also helped her deliver the defining moment of her career thus far.