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. Gestations between albums seem to have been getting smaller and smaller and now this set serves up a glorious excess of Williams’ finest qualities.
Always a brilliantly economical songwriter, Williams deals largely in clarity and simplicity. These qualities arguably come across best on her glorious ballads, of which there are thankfully plenty here. Wrong Number is a prime example – mournful and dusty, its lyrics simply a litany of failed attempts to find a missing loved one (‘wrong number/nobody here by that name’/‘wrong apartment’/‘wrong hotel’/‘wrong address’). Its cumulative power is devastating and it is in the grand lineage of Patsy Cline. Then there’s the gentle pessimistic shuffle of It’s Gonna Rain, on which Williams’ voice is at its most deliciously wracked and slurred.
Williams has never been the most conventionally gifted of singers – with a relatively narrow range and a drawling, laconic voice that occasionally cracks and splinters under strain. Yet it has always been the ideal instrument for her particular style of songwriting, and capable of conveying a much greater depth of feeling than a hundred Celine Dions. Her lyrics might appear thin but they are often purposefully repetitive, litanies of situations and possibilities that pile up, increasing their burden and their impact. Working within her limitations, Williams can do broken, devastated, fierce, independent, scathing, righteous and vengeful. Sometimes she is all these things at the same time, as on the wonderful Cold Day In Hell. There are a few more relishable sounds than her attacking a complacent politician on East Side Of Town (“You think you’re Mr Do-Gooder, but you don’t know what you’re talking about/When you find yourself in my neighbourhood, you can’t wait to get the hell out”) and few more heartbreaking than when she revels in a break-up or unrequited love. On the merciless Big Mess she condemns a non-committal, cheating ex-lover “straight to hell”.
There is also an impressive roster of guest musicians here that ensures the playing is impeccable and hugely expressive. Elvis Costello’s rhythm section, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, keep a rolling soulful feel, and the arrangements are sometimes augmented by insightful contributions from the likes of Ian McLagen and Bill Frisell. The slinky, menacing West Memphis and the Rolling Stones-esque blues chug of Protection have some delightful gospel-tinged backing vocals. The former also benefits from some rich, experience-informed guitar lines from Tony Joe White.
The album reaches a kind of razor sharp lightning crash on Foolishness, a seething attack on liars, fearmongers and fools on which the band builds to a tempestuous denouement. Much of the album has a real ‘country got soul’ feel to it – it could be a homage to the great days of Muscle Shoals (it might in fact be closest in sound to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Saved), but it feels too vivid to be purely a museum piece. Think of it more as a living, breathing expansion of a tradition.
Williams explores the possibilities for variety that the double album format affords both enthusiastically and judiciously. She travels across different terrain, but it is all landscape that she is well equipped to handle. The brilliantly apocalyptic Something Wicked This Way Comes opens with a portentous guitar warning and develops insistently and menacingly over its five and a half minutes, Williams’ insistent but inobtrusive vocal threading through the mysterious, duelling guitars and foreboding bursts of Hammond organ. By way of contrast, there are also some moments of delightfully upbeat charm, a hymn to perseverance and endurance in Stand Right By Each Other and a celebration of warmth and love in the superb Stowaway In Your Heart.
In what has been a sporadic but remarkably consistent career, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone feels like a late reinvigoration. Protracted but never anything less than enthralling, it is an epic celebration of Williams’ gifts for songwriting and delivery. It also captures an as yet unheralded talent for interpretation too. JJ Cale’s original Magnolia was a relatively concise three and a half minute miniature. Williams stretches it almost to breaking point, repeatedly intoning its title like a broken-hearted mantra whilst the band thread and weave around her. The album is also opened by her setting of Compassion, a poem by her father Miller Williams, a song that encourages empathy for all even as it acknowledges the pain and danger of the world. That pain and danger is everywhere in this album’s subsequent 19 songs, yet still Williams somehow manages to be stoical (Walk On) or to find levity and beauty too (see When I Look At The World particularly). It feels like the deepest and most soulful album she has made.