Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
If you ever had the desire to simply glide into the ocean of joy and misery that is the music of Lucinda Williams, her new album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, offers an immediate one-way ticket.
A two-disc, 20-song, one-hour, 45-minute opus, the recording explores in gloriously unrelenting detail the narrow bonds between love and loss, and then colors them with loose, jangly Americana jams that feature such masterful guitar stylists as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and others. Topping it all is Williams herself and that worn, morning-after voice that sounds alternately battered, hopeful and defiant.
There is a fairly elemental song structure to many of the tunes on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. It presents Williams as a kind of fact checker who lists the numerous reasons for her particular mind-set of vengeance or vulnerability. Take the boozy guitar lament Cold Day in Hell, which catches Williams in an especially unforgiving mood. "Before you trust me again, before you use me again, before I lust for you again, it'll be ... ." That, of course, is where the title comes in.
Similar in design, but not intent, is Protection, a cautionary affirmation of a woman "traveling thru the world with dedication" as she seeks shelter from the enemies of love righteousness, good, kindness and, of course, love.
At times. the rants, confessions and meditations turn topically political (West Memphis) or richly allegorical (Something Wicked This Way Comes). During When I Look at the World, however, the brilliant duality that has long distinguished Williams' best music comes to bear. The singer outlines a litany of abuses ("I've been lost, I've been turned away, I've paid the cost and there's been hell to pay"). But the song is, in essence, a prayer when its world view becomes less self-involved ("I look at the world and it's a different story").
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone bookends all this introspection and outward hope with two powerful tributes. The album-opening Compassion is written around a poem by the singer's father, Miller Williams, which provides the album with its title. A plea for understanding ("Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it"), Compassion is performed as a stark, unaccompanied spiritual. The record ends with a gorgeous cover of J.J. Cale's Magnolia, which Williams performs as a eulogy before the chiming guitar harmonies of Frisell and Leisz take flight.
How curious. Compassion suggests deeply rooted conflict even amid tenderness ("You do not know what wars are going on down where the spirit meets the bone"). But Magnolia almost unwillingly surrenders to love and remembrance, asserting yet another blissful way Williams looks at the world.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music writer