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Album Review: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone by Lucinda Williams
Great, Based on 12 Critics
musicOMH.com - 90 Based on rating 4.5
Her first album released on her own label, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is somehow both the longest and most focussed work of Lucinda Williams’ career. Although it takes a number of stylistic detours, it is unified by a resounding consistency not just in the quality of the writing, but also the expressiveness of the playing and the richness of the sound. Often unfairly caricatured as a slow working perfectionist, Williams has actually become increasingly prolific since Car Wheels On A Gravel Road finally brought her to mainstream attention in 1998.
Lucinda Williams has never had a comfortable relationship with the commercial side of the recording industry -- her battles with various major labels in the '90s are the stuff of legend -- and even though she had a reasonably stress-free partnership with Lost Highway Records from 2001's Essence to 2011's Blessed, it seems fitting that she would eventually decide to strike out on her own. 2014's Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is Williams' first album for her own label, Highway 20 Records, giving her complete control over the creative process, and though this doesn't always sound like an album where Williams is challenging herself musically, for a musician who has long believed in the power of nuance, this is an album that feels unerringly right for her, full of sweet and sour blues, acoustic pondering, and simple, bare bones rock & roll that slips into the groove with Williams' literate but unpretentious songs. Love and its infinite complexities have always been some of Williams' favorite themes, and they certainly pop up a few times on this double set, but she has just as much (if not more) to say about the world around her this time out, setting one of her father's poems to music as she pleads for "Compassion," spits venom at a dilettante from the perspective of someone living in poverty in "East Side of Town," recounts a real-life tale of justice gone wrong in "West Memphis," and issues a call to action on "Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing).
There's poetry in music, but it's never found in words alone. Perhaps no living artist exemplifies this better than Lucinda Williams: She isn't a poet, and her lyrics are often sparse almost to the point of cliché, but she enlivens them with the specificity of her vocal delivery. Her range is limited, but she uses her voice's eccentricities to maximum emotional effect.
From the stage of the Cox Capital Theatre in Macon, Georgia, on the 31st of May this year, Lucinda Williams, notorious in her early career for her sparse output, joked that she was becoming more prolific with age. She then played a mini-set of four songs from her upcoming double album that fit seamlessly into a set weighted heavily with songs from her classic, self-titled 1988 album, whose re-release she was touring to support. That 2-CD collection of 20songs, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, is here now, and it presents a songwriter continuing to mature in her work, offering her fans some comfortable points of familiarity while challenging them to grow with her.
There's always a fair bit of dirt that kicks up in Lucinda Williams' distinctive drawly vocals. She's tough and confrontational, and on her 11th studio album, Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone, that toughness initially comes across as even more deeply entrenched. It takes a little while to discover the tenderness that goes along with it.
The tenth full studio album by Lucinda Williams marks a career first for the country maverick: a double album. Borne of sessions that apparently produced 34 tracks, it appears Williams’ muse is as strong as ever and, in the spirit of great double albums, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone sees the songwriter stepping out of her comfort zone, both vocally and musically. It helps that she’s supported by an Americana dream team of a backing band, including Tony Joe White, Bill Frisell, Ian McLagan and Elvis Costello’s go-to guys Pete Thomas and Davey Flanagan.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone represents a significant high water mark for Lucinda Williams, who in the recent past has released a number of just-okay albums that always seemed to leave the listener wanting more. A double CD (or triple LP), it’s technically not her first double, but in an artistic sense, it is—and artistically, it almost feels like a comeback, since her 2005 2CD concert album, Live @ The Fillmore, could charitably be described as “meandering,” and subsequent studio recs, including the occasionally-strong West and the blissfully tepid Blessed, had the feel of treading water. While boasting a hall-of-fame roster’s worth of players and guests that includes Tony Joe White Ian McLagan, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Jonathan Wilson and Jakob Dylan plus a rotating rhythm section (primarily Pete Thomas and Davey Faragaher), the record is also 100% Lucinda Williams, a snapshot—or feature-length film, take your pick—of a 61-year old woman fully renewed and at the height of her creative powers.
Lucinda Williams opens her 11th studio album since 1979, "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone" (Thirty Tigers), from a darkened corner, with a stark, acoustic reading of "Compassion." It's a poem written by her father, Miller Williams, and it compactly conveys the grace one needs to navigate a world without a lot of it. It opens a double-album that unfolds over 110 minutes and 20 songs, a sprawling survey of how the personal becomes the political, with sides taken and winners declared. Williams says as much in the track that opens Disc 2, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," in which she describes a world without mercy.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, Lucinda Williams’ eleventh studio album, takes a long time to listen to. It’s two discs and twenty songs, which range from two and a half minutes to nine and a half, and are mostly slow, dark, and soulful. But Lucinda Williams has earned our attention. She’s an artist that turns out consistently great work that still feels vital to her many fans, despite a down-tick in hype following 1998’s much-praised Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Lucinda Williams made her first album for her own label, Highway 20 Records, a magnum opus: two discs, 20 songs and a summation of what has endeared her to a large, loyal following. She’s pithy and penetrating, bruised but steadfast, proud of the grain and drawl of her voice. Her music places itself in a vanishing, idealized Southland where country, soul, blues and gospel all share a common spirit and a vocabulary of twang, and where life lessons can be delivered by a bar band.
Lucinda Williams’s 11th studio album opens with its most solemn song, a threadbare proverb called “Compassion. ” Her voice is cracked beyond repair, the acoustic guitar is spare, the tempo crawls, and the message is simple: Extend compassion to everyone you meet, because “you do not know what wars are going on/ Down there where the spirit meets the bone. ” Williams adapted the song from a poem by her father, Miller Williams, and it gives “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” its emotional compass if not its melodic direction.
Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20) "You don't know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone," moans Lucinda Williams in invocation of her 11th studio release, harrowing voice scarred atop minimal guitar as if struggling to summon empathy from the pressured depths of hurt and desperation. "Compassion" preps the onetime Austinite's first double album less in tone than in ethos. The lead track, adapted from a poem by her father, acclaimed poet Miller Williams, serves simultaneously as moral lens for a riven society and a rebuff to the 61-year-old singer's critics.