BY FRED MILLS
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.
On the surface, DWTSMTB is an unapologetic throwback to vintage country soul/funk swamp-pop—it actually sounds like it might’ve been cut in Memphis or at Muscle Shoals, but in fact it was done at a studio in North Hollywood—while still conjuring the contradictory elements that made us fall in love with Williams in the first place: saucy-yet-sensitive vocals, abetted by rutting-in-the-dirt twang and leavened-by-angels jangle; plus intimate turns of phrase betraying the hurt of an old soul and the ecstasy of one eternally young (sometimes all in the space of a single song, such as with “When I Look at the World,” in which she sings in one verse, “I’ve made a mess of things/ I’ve been a total wreck,” only to pick herself up shortly after, admitting how “I look at the world/ In all its glory/ I look at the world/ And it’s a different story”). There’s an uncommon depth here that hasn’t been evidenced on Williams records in ages, both in the sonics (an immaculately crafted blend of intimate and widescreen) and the lyrics, which at times are deeply confessional and others downright defiant as the songwriter stares down her demons, the vicissitudes of relationships and the rampant idiocy of the outside world.
Disc 1 gathers steam early on via the tremolo-infused, midtempo choogler “Protection” (as in, the lonely/vulnerable first-person protagonist needs some) and edgy confessional “Burning Bridges” which hearkens back to such gems as 1998’s “Drunken Angel” and 2001’s “Out of Touch.” Soon enough the swamp-funk rises up for “West Memphis,” Tony Joe White lending sinewy guitar and harp licks, Williams saucily declaring, “Don’t come around here and try to mess with us/’Cause that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.” (It’s one among several ironic lyrical moments for the album as well: the song’s about the West Memphis Three debacle.) And with “Foolishness” Williams paints the first of two masterpieces on the album: against a relentlessly pulsing bed of piano, bass and electric guitar that eventually builds to a show-stopping-worthy crescendo, the singer calls out all the “liars and fearmongers” who promote non-stop “foolishness” then vows “to stand my ground… What I do in my own time/ Is none of your business and all of mine.” She could in fact be talking about people intruding into her personal life, but in the larger, songwriter-as-universalist sense, she’s talking about intolerance, bigotry and the politics of hate. The Libertarian party oughta adopt it as their war cry.
One CD change later, we’re at the other masterpiece, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a growling, drawling, mewling, purring slice of Texas-goes-to-Memphis ‘tude (yep, that’s Tony Joe once again on git-tar) that is imbued with such a saucy, sexy swagger you almost miss the fact that it’s Williams in tent-revival preacher mode:
“Something wicked this way comes
The likes of which you’ve never known
Hellfire and brimstone…
You will fall from grace
And you may never see his face
He was cast out of heaven
Something wicked this way comes.”
The album closes with a serene reading of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia,” its lone cover and as genuine a denouement as one could desire following such a tempestuous, nearly two-hour assignation. Significantly, the album also opened with a semi-cover, “Compassion,” a lyrical adaptation of her father Miller Williams’ poem that he read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration; it’s a gentle acoustic number that helps ease the listener into what turns into a wild, rollicking, rollercoaster two-hour ride.
You’ll want to get on that ride again immediately after.
DOWNLOAD: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “Foolishness,” “Protection,” “Walk On”