Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
Lucinda WilliamsDown Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
"You don't know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone," moans Lucinda Williams in invocation of her 11th studio release, harrowing voice scarred atop minimal guitar as if struggling to summon empathy from the pressured depths of hurt and desperation. "Compassion" preps the onetime Austinite's first double album less in tone than in ethos. The lead track, adapted from a poem by her father, acclaimed poet Miller Williams, serves simultaneously as moral lens for a riven society and a rebuff to the 61-year-old singer's critics. Its sparse accompaniment anticipates none of the following explosive jams from A-list backers including Bill Frisell, Tony Joe White, and local keynoter Ian McLagan. Few of the 20 songs clip under four minutes, but calling the shots now behind her own label, Williams seems unburdened from efficiency, for better and worse. Uncoupled, disc one would tier near the top of her catalog. Williams' masterful balance of yearning and defiance scorch "Protection" and twang grit on "Burning Bridges," while standout cultural commentaries "East Side of Town" and "West Memphis" bite with her best. The backside turns more personal, "Cold Day in Hell" and "Wrong Number" steeling resolve with an easy R&B bookending the driving guitar of "Foolishness" and "It's Gonna Rain," which trembles achingly expectant in harmony with Jakob Dylan. The second disc gives the band freer rein, with Williams too sounding looser in the blues crawl of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and sharpened rants of "Big Mess" and "Everything but the Truth." Electric guitars fly. Yet only the melodic strut of "Walk On" and classic weariness of "One More Day" rise above the jams, which detract from her songwriting and the songs themselves, although a 10-minute closing take on J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" serves as perfect capstone. That lack of focus falters the whole, but Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone triumphs in Lucinda Williams becoming gloriously unbound.