It has been a while since we heard from the Queen of Louisiana, Lucinda Williams. For many she is the epitome of a Deep South sensibility that is embedded in the culture below the Mason Dixon Line. Her emphasis on the important everyday things in life and loving sets her as the most assured navigator who is able in the words of Amazon to provide "a guided tour of life's dark clouds". Her voice is unique. It has developed from the dulcet tones of songs like "Sweet old World" to a raspy Southern drawl which has been "lived in" and which can convey racked emotion like no other.
This new album "Down where the spirit meets the bone" is an embarrassment of riches of the Williams craft. The album is a double stretching over 100 minutes and bookended by two covers. The first threadbare cover of "Compassion" from a poem by her father, Miller Williams and where the album derives its title in the line "you do not know what wars are going on/ Down there where the spirit meets the bone." Its a haunting start but even better is the closer, a superb cover of the late J J Cale's "Magnolia" which is extended from the gentle 3 minute original to a near ten minute tale of latent regret and a mighty respectful nod to Cale. As Williams states "When we went in (to record), he had passed away not too long before and was kind of on people's minds, so we decided to do it". How Eric Clapton must have wished he had this level of class for his recent tribute album.
Overall the album might be a long listen but has enough variety to keep it stuck to the turnable. The swampy vibe of songs like "Protection", "West Memphis" and "Foolishness" match the recent work of Rosanne Cash, whilst "East Side of Town" could have happily figured on "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". Other tracks like the acoustic such as "This Old Heartache" will be the perfect soundtrack after a weary night on the tiles, while the beautiful "Its Gonna Rain" is pure alt-country heartbreak with Bob's offspring Jacob Dylan providing sterling vocal support. Equally with premier musicians like Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell providing accompaniment she can't really go wrong. You might think that this "overdose" of Williams may start to try the listeners patience, yet she is a class act and her songs are stayers. The excellent "Burning Bridges" (with a burning guitar solo) for example talks of "a string of bad decisions" and you sense that Lucinda Williams is no stranger to her share of mistakes. The slow blues of "Temporary Nature (of any precious thing)" demonstrates that weather beaten voice giving lessons in hurt to all her contemporaries and shows her as one of the great American exponents of the songwriting art. Remarkably this is topped by the pure pain of the slows blues on "Cold day in hell" which is emotionally as wide open as a gaping wound.
Consequently the good news is this is a great album. The even better news is that Lucinda Williams openly admits there may be more music to follow extracted from this rich vein. As she admits "We recorded enough stuff for three albums, actually. They weren't all my songs. We cut a JJ Cale song, 'Blond Hair and Blue Eyes.' We recorded Bruce Springsteen's 'Factory.' In meantime with 20 excellent songs located on "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone" we have plenty of great music to preoccupy us in the interim.
Review by Red on Black