We actually recorded over thirty tracks,’ Lucinda tells me, “so we already have enough songs for another album after this one! I guess having more experience with writing and everything, I’ve gotten more confident. I’m more prolific now than I’ve ever been!”
In terms of personnel, too, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is an undeniably rich offering. The record features input from Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello), Ian McLagen (Faces), Jakob Dylan, and blues guitar maestro Tony Joe White. As with any Lucinda Williams release, though, it’s the combination of breathtaking songwriting, free-ranging style, and raw charisma that makes this a truly memorable outing. They’re qualities Williams has nurtured on a long, circuitous and often arduous musical road.
For more than three decades, Lucinda Williams has refined her own startlingly original slant on the classic sounds of the American South, straddling delta blues, Cajun, roots, soul, Gospel, and country. Where the three-time Grammy winner’s unique sound is concerned, at least the kernel of a beginning may be traced to her unusually transient upbringing.
Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father, Miller William, himself a highly regarded poet, frequently moved his young family from post to post as he took up teaching jobs with colleges in Mississippi, Arkansas, Chile, and Mexico City. A devotee of the folk movement, Lucinda’s earliest experiences on the stage were performing for audiences in Mexico City. Having been expelled from High School at the outset of the 1970s, Williams’ ruthless artistic self-possession took her first to New Orleans, then Austin, Houston, and ultimately New York.
Recorded for the much-lauded Folkways label in Jackson, Mississippi, Williams’ debut Ramblin’ (1979) was a covers album traversing classic blues, folk, and country. An album of original material, Happy Woman Blues followed in 1980. Landing in 1988, the self-titled Lucinda Williams proved an enduring critical hit, and featured the singer’s homage to sometime hometown New Orleans, ‘Crescent City’. Arriving in 1992, Sweet Old World underscored Williams’ peculiar talent for rendering heartache and loss, with laments for a lover lost to suicide in ‘Pineola’, and a dedication to the singer’s brother in ‘Little Angel, Little Brother’.
Williams’ 20th century masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) proved to be both a study in perfection and a lesson in the pitfalls of perfectionism. Over several years, the album was recorded, scrapped, and re-recorded, testing the patience of collaborators such as Steve Earle and resulting in Williams parting ways with long-time producer Gurf Morlix. For all that, Car Wheels was Williams’ first Gold-certified release. It earned the singer a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and was a tearaway critical success. Standout tracks include a hymn to the juke joint traditions of the American South in ‘2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten’, and a reflection on the moveable feast that is the notion of “home” in ‘Lake Charles’.
In 2002, TIME magazine named Lucinda “America’s Best Songwriter”. Since Car Wheels, releases such as Essence (2001), West (2007), and Blessed (2011), have cemented Williams’ place in the American music landscape. Williams has worked with the likes of Elvis Costello and Charlie Louvin, toured with Bob Dylan, and has seen her compositions chart for Patty Loveless (‘The Night’s Too Long’) and Mary Chapin Carter (the Grammy-winning ‘Passionate Kisses’). Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone does more than simply gild the lily.
Album opener ‘Compassion’ is a slow-picked acoustic number, in which Williams’ striking vocal is coloured by the singer’s world weary delivery and cadence:
‘Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it, what seems conceit is always a sign of things no eyes have seen, you do not know, what wars are going on, down there, where the spirit meets the bone.’
It’s a timeless message worn thin by repetition – and ever more tiring in the telling. ‘Compassion’ is a reworking of a poem penned by Williams’ father. In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Lucinda spoke of her father’s insistence on the clear differentiation of poetry from song. What is the difference between a poem and a song, I ask?
“If there was ever a doubt in my mind, I certainly put it to rest when I sat down to try to make this poem into a song!” Lucinda tells me. “I thought ‘Wow, they really are two different animals!’ The actual poem is very sparse, and very succinct. So I had to find a way to flesh it out. The main difference is that poetry doesn’t have music to support it. You can’t just take a poem, put a melody on it, and be done with it! With songs you have the music to help fill it in, to fill it up.”
Soulful, smouldering blues and funk-inflected southern rock is a frequent backdrop across Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone although Williams challenges these styles as often as she champions them. Highlights in this vein include the shimmering ‘Protection’, driving love song ‘Stowaway In Your Heart’, snarling, swampy throwback ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, and a gorgeous reworking of JJ Cale classic ‘Magnolia’.
Venturing into fresh territory, Williams champions America’s poor in ‘East Side of Town’, while portentous, overdriven guitar intrudes into ‘West Memphis’, a funk-rock number that decries the injustices surrounding the controversial case of Tennessee’s West Memphis Three:
‘Three little boys are found in the river on a sweltering summer night, not one soul ever figured it out who created that terrible sight, somebody got away with murder and a horrible offence, that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.’
Slower country cuts number ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, and the shuffling, pedal steel-anchored ‘This Old Heartache’. Williams is undeniably keeper of the flame for the heartsick and world-weary, and there are several songs of lost love and suffering here. That said, an unmistakably wry, ironic tone asserts itself on several such tracks, including slow-rock cut ‘Cold Day In Hell’, the sly wink of ‘Wrong Number’ (‘wrong apartment – nobody here by that name; I can’t tell you where he went, and here’s the thing: he was late on the rent, and the lock’s been changed’), and the excellent ‘Big Mess’.
“I actually wrote ‘Big Mess’ not about an ex-boyfriend or anything, but about my ex-business manager!” Lucinda tells me. “Now that I’m older, I think there’s a kind of wisdom that comes through in these songs. If I’m writing about a painful thing like in ‘This Old Heartache,’ I’m basically saying I’m always going to have a little bit of a heartache, no matter what. Because the older you get, you go through more pain and loss and losing people you love. It’s about having that pain and realising it’s always going to be there. That’s different to writing about love going wrong, or a sort of typical unrequited love song.”
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is far from an album of hurt and suffering, though. Upbeat love song ‘Stand Right By Each Other’ very politely nudges the listener in the pelvis, while ‘When I Look At The World’ celebrates simple pleasures in the face of adversity. Sometimes, Lucinda Williams reminds us, the crucible of a life hard-lived is the surest path to meaning and satisfaction. It’s a message the singer repeats in talismanic style on ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)’:
“…love can never, never live, without the pain of loss.’
It stands as a fitting masthead for Lucinda Williams’ uniquely captivating oeuvre thus far.