Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone", by Lucinda Williams (Album of the Week)

Reviewing an "Album of the Week" is a project that Robin over at Deliberate Obfuscation and I started last year as a solution to the calcification of our musical tastes.  We love seeing live music, but didn't know much about most of the bands that come through town.  So we decided to start choosing an album we would both listen to for the week, and then write separate reviews.  We don't discuss our impressions in any depth at all during the week, to avoid influencing each other.  Sometimes we disagree strongly, but we usually agree in a general sense.  Never before, though, have we come close to writing the same damned review, but that's pretty much what happened this week.

For this year’s first “Album of the Week”, Robin and I tackle Lucinda Williams’ “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone”, a double album released in 2014.  20 tracks spread over almost 2 hours, this is a big dose of music from an artist I’ve long admired.  Well-written, well-performed and well worth the $5 Amazon download, this album would have knocked someone out of my 2014 top ten list if I had invested the time to listen to it a few months ago.

Some instant classics pop out of this colossus.  “Cold Day in Hell” is a smoldering break-up song, in which she assures her former lover that it will be a cold, cold day in hell before he gets to use and confuse her again.  It’s a honky-tonk slow dance classic, with wailing guitar solos that break your heart.  

“Wrong Number” is cut from the same cloth.  Simple slow music sung with intensity.

It’s not only sad slow songs on this album, though.  “Stand Right by Each Other” brings a little energy to the party, in the form of a make-up song:

Babe I care too much, I won't give up that easy
So give me that much, baby don't give up on me
If you could see yourself the way I see you baby
Then you could see for yourself why I don't want nobody else
We gotta stand right by each other
We gotta try harder baby
I got stand right by you
And you gotta stand right by me

You’re never going to hear Lucinda Williams warble a glossy Taylor Swift dance number, but there’s a clear-eyed optimism that prevents her from being a Debbie Downer.  She explains her approach in “When I Look at the World”:

I've been out of luck
I've been talked about
I've been locked up
I've been shut out
I've had some bad dreams
I’ve been filled with regret
I've made a mess of things
And been a total wreck
I've been disrespected
and taken for a ride
I've been rejected
and had my patience tried
But then I look at the world
in all its glory
I look at the world
And it's a different story
each time I look at the world

It doesn’t hurt the album that she assembled some great musicians to accompany her.  Some critics have complained that the album feels “padded” with extra guitar playing, but they’re simply wrong.  The guitar work on this album provides the bedrock that everything else grows on – it transforms the lyrics from barely passable poetry to expressive music. 

Speaking of poetry, the title of the album comes from a poem written by her father.  She reworks the poem into the opening track, and it’s a beautiful piece that stands apart from the rest of the album.  Always show compassion, she advises in a lean acoustic setting, because what comes across as conceit, bad manners or cynicism is

Always a sign
of things no ears have heard
Always a sign
of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone

Friends, I wish I had listened to this album a few months ago so that I could have listed it in my “Top 10”, but, on the other hand, I’m happy I started out my 2015 listening with such a wonderful and important album.

Next up, Absent Fathers, by Justin Townes Earl

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