Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Both familiar and challenging, Williams' new record invites her audience to dance slow and close to a set of adult songs for adult listeners.

Lucinda Williams

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

US Release: 2014-09-30
UK Release: 2014-09-29
Label: Highway 20

From the stage of the Cox Capital Theatre in Macon, Georgia, on the 31st of May this year, Lucinda Williams, notorious in her early career for her sparse output, joked that she was becoming more prolific with age. She then played a mini-set of four songs from her upcoming double album that fit seamlessly into a set weighted heavily with songs from her classic, self-titled 1988 album, whose re-release she was touring to support. That 2-CD collection of 20songs, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, is here now, and it presents a songwriter continuing to mature in her work, offering her fans some comfortable points of familiarity while challenging them to grow with her.

In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, the influential film critic A.O. Scott declared that "[N]obody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable." Scott is discussing film and television, of course, but it doesn't take a long examination of the current musical landscape to see ample parallels to his broad criticism. Never mind the continuing stranglehold of tween-centric, Auto-tuned pop and adolescent bro-country on the charts, even long-established performers continue to contort themselves into futile attempts at seeming young and remaining relevant: witness U2's recent album release publicity stunt with its cool-by-association punk icon referencing video. And if Sid Vicious' version of "My Way" being used to sell Honda Acuras isn't a demonstration of an America locked in adolescence, I don't know what is. But Lucinda Williams isn't buying it, and into this void she has released a brave, if sometimes excessive, collection of adult songs for adult listeners.

This is an album that rings with many of the familiar markings of the classic Lucinda Williams sound: the occasionally chiming guitars, the sudden, charging openings, and, of course, that voice of equal parts nectar and grit. But this is also a very different album from any that she has released. Williams presents here a collection of country soul songs referencing classic performers of that sub-genre like Bobby Gentry and Tony Joe White (who contributes his distinctive guitar tones to a couple songs here). The overall vibe is that of the second set at some late-night honky-tonk after all the necessary pairing off has been figured out for the evening and the couples just want to dance slow and close for a few more songs and a couple of last rounds.

The whole of the album has a live feel to it, with most songs extending past five minutes and featuring extended instrumental breaks, often via the extended interplay between "dueling" guitars, mostly at the hands of Greg Leisz and the Wallflowers' Stuart Mathis, though Val McCallum and Bill Frisell also feature prominently on the record. Even Williams' vocalizations are especially languid on these songs, the phrasing slow, with many wavering notes held for extended fades, as if she were playing her voice like a muted trumpet. And longtime Elvis Costello collaborators Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher unseat Williams' usual rhythm section of Butch Norton and David Sutton for most of the track here, providing a loping, but never plodding, foundation for the lead players.

Lyrically, Williams is in top form, and it is in her lyrics that the album's adult themes come to the fore. The record's title comes from its opening song, a reworking of a work by her father, the renowned poet Miller Williams. That song, "Compassion", sets the tone for the album's themes of maturity and grace, advising us to maintain compassion in the face of deception, rudeness, or cynicism because these are signs of weakness in the source, and because "you do not know what wars are going on / Down there where the spirit meets the bone." It's as if the Williamses, father and daughter, are offering a tonic for the lack of civility in our times. This theme of perseverance over those who would bring us down reappears throughout the album on songs like "Protection", "Cold Day in Hell", and "Walk On".

The strongest statement of this theme comes in "Foolishness", which can be considered an empowering update of the classic "Changed the Locks" from Lucinda Williams. "Foolishness" follows the same blues progression of the earlier song, but here, the steel protecting Williams' persona is internal. There is no need for the locks or changed addresses of thirty years ago: Williams is herself her own fortress. She will banish all fools, liars, fear-mongers and assorted sycophants from her life, brushing all aside with the declaration "What I do in my own time / Is none of your business and all of mine". The wisdom of this song is born of 30 years in the public eye, one often dominated by male perspectives and judgments. Listening to it, I can't help but think of Taylor Swift, already five years inside the same media machine, now taking her first steps into being perceived as an adult songwriter and whose recent single, "Shake It Off" presents a confectionary pop attempt on the same theme.

With any extensive collection such as this, not all of the songs work at the same level. "Burning Bridges", a more standard country-rock song, could be a Little Honey outtake and seems a bit out of place here. "Wrong Number" and "Big Mess" are fine songs that just don't stand out amidst a collection of still-stronger cuts, but that's the nature of choosing to release a 20 song double-album over a 15 song single-disc, and it's not a big deal. I'm not the first to point out that even a half-decent Lucinda Williams song trumps most of what's out there on the charts. Only "West Memphis" stumbles in its conception and presentation.

Set up as a first-person reflection in the voice of one of the "West Memphis Three," the three young men wrongly convicted of the still-unsolved 1993 torture and murder of three young boys in that Arkansas town, the song falters in its narrative consistency. It works when the narrator tells the basic story, but the narrative consistency breaks down in the refrain and its repeated warning of "So don't come around here and try to mess with us / 'Cause that's the way we do things / In West Memphis." The fact is that it was outsiders whose increasing political pressure forced the local authorities to agree to a plea deal and release the wrongly convicted men makes these lines ring somewhat hollow. Perhaps voicing the narration from the perspective of a cynical but detached local observer would bring the necessary consistency to the whole of the song.

In all, though, this album stands with Williams' strongest work and represents that rare thing in American popular music and its culture of celebrity: a performer who is comfortable in her own skin, even if it isn't, and hasn't been for some time, the skin of a teenager. And rare, too, in that this is a deceptively optimistic album about embracing one's place along the long and winding path of life. "Stand Right By Each Other" and "Stowaway in Your Heart" offer deep, touching appreciations of adult love, facing the obstacles and coming out the other end stronger because, sometimes, strength is making oneself vulnerable to another, opening up the defenses, and letting someone in. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the most confident and forceful Williams sounds is on the album's gospel-tinged "Everything But the Truth": "You gotta make the most," she sings "of what equipment you've got". Amen, and, lord, she does.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.