LUCINDA WILLIAMS – Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

Lucinda-WilliamsIn launching her own label at 61, Williams clearly hasn’t gone for any half-measures. Her first album in four years, this is a 20 track double set that clocks in at around two hours without a single hint of filler. With guitarist Greg Leisz a constant presence and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Pete Thomas, Davey Faragher) featuring on most of the tracks, the musicians also variously include Ian McLagan on keyboards, bassist Bob Glaub, Bill Frisell and Doug Pettibone on guitars and Gia Ciambotti on back-ups, along with a couple of special guests we’ll get to later.

The album takes its title from the final two lines of the opening track, ‘Compassion’, an adaptation of the poem by her father, Miller Williams, (and previously used on the inside cover of 2007’s West) as, accompanied by sparse acoustic guitar, she delivers its plea for empathy in a world wearied, dry gravel husk that makes Marianne Faithfull sound like Ellie Goulding. But then, she jabs you in the heart with a needle full of adrenaline, turning on the amps and bringing in the band for ‘Protection’, the sort of tremolo driven Southern country blues rock strutter of which Mick Jagger could only dream, before the steady rhythmic groove and catchy chorus of ‘Burning Bridges’, a song about a self-destructive friend, and the chiming, country-rock ‘East Side Of Town’ with its echoes of early Eagles and Jackson Browne and a lyric that, harking back to her father’s poem, addresses the complacent “mister do-good” politicians who make deals and promises, but who look not listen and have “no empathy in your eyes”.

Never one to shrink from socio-political comment, she strikes out again on ‘West Memphis’, her distinctive Southern slur drawled over a swamp-funk groove featuring Tony Joe White on guitar and harmonica, which (like the recent Colin Firth film, Devil’s Knot) addresses the 1993 miscarriage of justice that saw three teenagers convicted of the murder of three young boys, eventually released (but never cleared) after 18 years when new forensic evidence emerged. Sung from the perspective of Jessie Misskelley, who was coerced into a false confession, the lyrics chillingly note “that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.”

From the political, the focus shifts to the personal with ‘Cold Day In Hell’, a slow blues waltz kiss-off to a faithless ex, quite possibly the same one she’s addressing in the equally mid-tempo, soulful ‘Big Mess’ over on disc 2, both numbers featuring blistering guitar from Val McCallum. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Southern rock strut for the first disc’s closing sequence with ‘Foolishness’, McLagan on piano and Leisz on lap steel as she rejects all the liars and fear-mongers in her life declaring “what I do in my own time is none of your business and all of mine”.

From here, it’s into the brushed drums of the abandoned protagonist trying to track down her missing ‘next of kin’ in the Patsy Cline infused ‘Wrong Number’, a distant thematic cousin to ‘Return To Sender’, while ‘Stand Right By Each Other’ offers an almost reverse image, a determination to see things through together set to warm rolling, organ backed Memphis country soul that perfectly fits her honey and grit voice. But, if that keeps a grip on optimism, the album ends on a note of pessimistic resignation as Jakob Dylan joins her on harmonies for the mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a song that dates back to her time living in Nashville.

Switch discs and the fire’s back, kicking off with the swaggering swampy near six minute ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, Tony Joe White duelling with Leisz while Patrick Warren lays down the organ as Williams turns travelling preacher to warn of approaching fire and brimstone. But, if that’s apocalyptic, the mood switches again for the soulful (hints of Dobie Gray) slow swaying ‘When I Look At The World’ where “all its glory” makes up for the litany of disappointments and hard times. She’s equally positive on ‘Walk On’, a fairly straight-ahead country-rock number where she tells the woman in the lyrics (the lead singer in the band as it happens) to hang on in there because she has the strength to see things through. That same message about how pain is part of the hard won wisdom of the heart informs the magnificent slow waltzing ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)’.

The power of positive thinking is there too in the snaking, swampy steamrollering groove of ‘Everything But The Truth’, Stuart Mathis and Leisz providing gutsy electric guitar as, back in preacher mode, she says “God put the firewood there, but you gotta light it yourself.”

Love lost, love received and love in the balance respectively inform the final three self-penned numbers, ‘This Old Heartache’ a pedal steel streaked old school honky tonker, ‘Stowaway In Your Heart’ an equally country guitar twanged chugger with Patrick Warren on chamberlin, and the give me another chance ‘One More Day’ adding Wurlitzer and a horns section to the mix to conjure up thoughts of slow burn Penn and Oldham.

The collection ends with the solitary cover, a close on 10 minute blissfully serene version of J.J.Cale’s ‘Magnolia’, Butch Norton on brushes with Frisell and Leisz’s guitars providing an understated, laid-back head massage as, in a sultry reverie, Williams smokily purrs “you’re the best I ever had” before intoning the title over and over Van Morrison-style as the band briefly wind down before firing up one more time for the playout.

After a four year silence, she’s returned, re-energised and in towering form with an album focused around emotional conflict and the ebbs and flows of the heart, one that both accepts the dark and embraces the light, to emerge strong in both spirit and bone. A late, but quite possibly unbeatable contender for country album of the year, and with news that the follow up is done and dusted, recorded during the same sessions and featuring a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, she may already have next year’s sorted too.

Mike Davies

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