In a career that has had its twists and turns, Lucinda Williams has slowly and steadily created a body of work that stands comparison with the very best, helping to set the benchmarks for alt-country and Americana along the way. In the wake of the critical and commercial reappraisal of her self titled release from 1988, comes a brand new studio album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Remarkably, for someone who is well known for taking her time, the new record finds Lucinda’s creativity brimming over. The result is a double CD, expansively recorded with some absolutely stunning guest turns and some blistering guitar work. As the title suggests she digs deep under the skin of these songs, mapping the terrain Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
I have a confession to make. I claim no credit, but was a very good friend and work colleague of the man who helped kick start Lucinda William’s career, so you might say I’m biased, or let’s just say predisposed. It’s an unlikely story in so many ways, but you can read Robin Hurley’s own account in the sleeve notes to the recent CD re-issue of the eponymous Lucinda Williams, originally released by Rough Trade Records back in 1988. Robin eventually moved to LA, but in the mid 80s, he would travel back and forth and I still remember him returning from one trip with cassette tapes of Lucinda’s demos, which ultimately became that album.
It seemed an improbable signing for Rough Trade, although Robin had no trouble convincing me, but much more importantly Geoff Travis, that it was a work of genius. Personally it also opened the doors to the world of alt-country, through which the likes of Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmour, Lyle Lovett, Townes and countless other mavericks have marched, whistlin’ variations of Dixie, ever since.
It took the world some years to catch up with Lucinda, although Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of Passionate Kisses from that album became a massive hit, it wasn’t until the album’s recent re-release that it really got the credit it deserved, even making the US Top 40 album chart on a wave of critical acclaim. One reviewer was even moved to suggest there wasn’t a lyric or a note out of line, something which some of us had held true some 25 plus years ago. At that time, however, Emmylou Harris was another who recognised Lucinda’s talent, but had cause to bemoan that country music seemed slow to draw her into the fold, much to its artistic loss.
Whilst the recent success of that self titled album re-issue confirms that Emmylou had a point, Lucinda hasn’t exactly made things easy. If she hasn’t actively delighted in outsider status, then Lucinda has at least done things in her own way and in her own sweet time. That Rough Trade album was actually her third, but with an eight year gap back to the two recorded for Smithsonian Folkways, and it would take another four years to follow it with Sweet Old World. It would then be another six years on top of that to get to Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the album that finally gave Lucinda a proper taste of mainstream success in her own right. Three years would then elapse to Essence, which although it sold well was a much rawer album that was much more alt than country, signifying Lucinda’s refusal to be boxed in.
Essence established Lucinda with Lost Highway, a label that in name alone, sounded like the perfect home and for whom she recorded a further four studio albums. Lucinda has also guested with many artists and her list of collaborations runs and runs. When in 2007 Lucinda performed a series of concerts in New York and Los Angeles, playing five different albums on consecutive nights an amazing list of artists – Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Mike Campbell, Greg Dulli, E, Ann Wilson, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, David Johansen, Yo La Tengo, John Doe, Chuck Prophet, Jim Lauderdale and Shelby Lynne – lined up to take part. It at very least shows the regard in which she is held amongst her peers and contemporaries.
For the self titled re-issue Lucinda took back control of the rights to the record and continues that here, for Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, setting up her own Highway 20 Records. She married Tom Overby, her manager on stage in 2009 and he has had a hand in producing her recordings since then including this new one. Much as guitarist Gurf Morlix played a major role in that Rough Trade album, however, Greg Leisz does here. He plays guitar throughout as well as co-producing and Lucinda regards him as the glue that holds the sessions together.
Greg isn’t the only guitarist and guitars feature a lot with Val McCallum and Stuart Mathis, who share Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers on their CVs, joining Doug Pettibone, Tony Joe White, Bill Frisell and Jonathan Wilson in electrifying this album with some serious finger-lickin’-fret-board-finesse. The album simply rocks! It’s like the free spirited, expansive end of Rust Never Sleeps in all of its ragged glory, with a similarly raw emotional pull, but also blessed with a country-soul edge. Other notable guests on the recording include drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davy Faragher, who are both regulars with Elvis Costello and also Ian McLagan, the former Faces keyboard man.
The opening track Compassion, in which Lucinda adapts words by her father, the celebrated poet Miller Williams, gives the album its title. It also sets out the raw emotional territory as Lucinda wraps her gravel and grit drawl around the lines, “You do not know what wars are going on, down there where the spirit meets the bone.” The setting is something she’s long wanted to do, but also something that has proved difficult to achieve, although this latest creative surge has finally seen her nail it.
For someone who seems to have taken her time between records, Williams is on a creative roll. Not only is this a double disc, but the 20 tracks weigh in at just over 100 minutes. The great joy is the collective decision to let things run, not to worry about deploying the faders and go for the feel. Although it majors on sweet sorrows, there are changes of mood and Lucinda even changes her vocals from blurred drawl through soulful gravel and grit, mining every ounce of emotional gold from a great collection of songs. The result is something really special.
A number of the titles are immediately suggestive. Burning Bridges, which sounds almost like Rumours era Fleetwood Mac, the slow and pained Cold Day In Hell, the swampy, reverb drenched gospel tinged Everything But The Truth and the bar room honky-tonk of This Old Heartache map out the territory of broken hearts and the emotional fallout of troubled souls. But amidst it all is the defiance of Protection with it’s slinky CCR like riff and the brooding Foolishness in which Lucinda sings, “What I do in my own time Is none of your business and all of mine.”
There are other injustices, quite literally in West Memphis as Lucinda sings, “Somebody planted the evidence, and he’s been lying ever since, but that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.” The song documents the fate of the West Memphis Three and is one of the tracks to feature Tony Joe White. Then there are the haves and have nots in The East Side Of Town, as Lucinda berates those who pay lip service to social problems with, “You wanna see what it means to suffer, you wanna see what it means to be down, then why don’t you come over to the east side of town.”
Lucinda also pays tribute to a literary heroine Flannery O’Connor with the gothic, spooky infusion of Something Wicked This Way Comes with Tony Joe White adding atmospheric licks. She gets into character as she almost growls the lyrics, “You will fall from grace, you may never see his face, he was out of heaven, something wicked this way comes.” It’s an absolute humdinger and a great way to get the second disc underway, which also vies with the soulful Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing) for being first choice as the best track on the album. In fairness with each successive play several other tracks suggest themselves and the brightly poppy Walk On is really hard to resist. Hell, even the supposed bonus track, the only non-original here and a heartfelt, sad-eyed version of JJ Cale’s Magnolia, is stunning as it stretches out to almost 10 minutes with some beautiful guitar work from Bill Frisell.
Two CDs worth and two full CDs worth at that might well fly in the face of the current trends, there are no edit point and nothing that sounds like filler. As she sings on Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing), “And it’s always the sweetest reddest roses, that kiss the sharpest thorns, and it’s always the deepest saddest joys, that prove to be the richest ones,” and this is a treasure trove of pure pleasure form start to finish.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out on 29 Sep 2014 via Highway 20 Records
Available via: Amazon