There’s poetry in music, but it’s never found in words alone. Perhaps no living artist exemplifies this better than Lucinda Williams: She isn’t a poet, and her lyrics are often sparse almost to the point of cliché, but she enlivens them with the specificity of her vocal delivery. Her range is limited, but she uses her voice’s eccentricities to maximum emotional effect. When she sings, “I take off my watch and my earrings,” on the opening track of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she conveys not only a woman’s precise movements, but all the longing and emptiness they imply.
Williams’s new double album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, starts with words from one of her father Miller Williams’s poems. “Compassion” urges treating others with concern even when it’s not wanted: “You do not know what wars are going on/Down there where the spirit meets the bone,” Williams sings, accompanied only by acoustic guitar. It’s a grim line on a grim-sounding track, but the sentiment is a tonic in the current media landscape. In an ever more connected world, it’s paradoxically easier to extricate oneself from the complicated, everyday realities of others. Compassion, in its most basic form, is more vital than ever.
The rest of the album sounds very little like “Compassion,” but its moral imperative drives everything. Williams grapples with hardships and our ability to heal ourselves and each other, or at least to try. Though it was written and recorded before the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and subsequent protests, “East Side of Town” could very well have been inspired by those events. Williams takes the perspective of a segregated neighborhood whose daily suffering is hijacked by politicians and media for a conversation of “ideas.” “You say you sympathize/You look but you don’t listen/There’s no empathy in your eyes,” she says to the unnamed powers that be. Likewise, the bluesy “West Memphis,” inspired by the West Memphis Three, tells the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder in part because “They didn’t like the music I listened to, they didn’t like the way I dressed.” Williams indicts America’s broken criminal justice system with a simple line: “That’s the way we do things.” At a time when the protest song has nearly faded into nonexistence, it’s an urgent call for change.
For decades, Williams has blurred the lines between country, blues, rock, and folk in ways that have upset the status quo, long before Americana became a massive radio category. (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road won the 1999 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album despite the fact that it’s one of her least folky albums.) Country remains a touchstone on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, though it stretches far beyond that pat label. There’s quite a bit of guitar noodling, including searing electric solos on “Burning Bridges” and “Foolishness” that evoke ’70s classic rock. Guttural yells on the former recall Patti Smith, an unusual reference point for the usually placid Williams. In other words, should Williams be nominated next year, expect the Grammys to once again have no idea what to do with her.
Williams has assembled many guest musicians this time around, but despite all the disparate talent, the album is a tight, coherent work that never devolves into self-indulgent jamming, even at an epic 103 minutes. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t have used a little more editing. Williams is slightly less convincing in the fire-and-brimstone mode of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” even if the melody is fetching enough to lodge its way into your brain for a full week, and “When I Look at the World” and “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)” offer similar carpe diem truisms, only the latter is more precious about it. As always, Williams is most at home in finely wrought realistic narratives like “Wrong Number,” about a man who’s skipped town and may be in danger.
For a musician who can be as withholding as Williams (she tends to wait several years between relatively short albums), the generosity of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a welcome change. “There are only so many things you can write about, love, sex, death, redemption,” she says in the press notes. She’s packed them all into this album, which could’ve easily come off as didactic, but instead seems sincere and wise, perhaps because Williams has accumulated the experience to effectively pull off such a multidimensional project. Though some songs no doubt touch on personal ground, including the kind of kiss-offs to bad men for which she’s known (“Cold Day in Hell,” “Big Mess”), she speaks in broader terms, exposing the falsest sides of human nature while at the same time affirming a universal humanity underneath it all.
The album ends with a love song, a 10-minute cover of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia.” Bright guitars and drums ebb and flow from near-silence into a gorgeous, overwhelming cacophony, while Williams stretches the vowels of the song’s title in a kind of hymn for the “baby I left down in New Orleans.” In its ability to engender the most powerful feelings of companionship, it rivals nothing less than Stanley Kunitz’s masterful verse in “Touch Me.” Maybe Lucinda Williams is a poet after all.