Throughout her long and legendary career, Lucinda Williams has garnered a reputation for dismissing any notions of rules, expectations, or boundaries. Whether it be ignoring distinctions between genres, forging musical trends instead of following them, waiting too long to release albums, or conversely firing off a string of stellar albums at the point in her career when others are in decline, Williams has always done things her way.
But even by her own standards, Lucinda Williams has managed to flout all manner of conventions with her latest release, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. For one, it's a double album, a format that has often fallen victim to pretentious artistic wankery and, thus, is rightfully viewed with derision and skepticism. But then, as if Williams felt compelled to go even further, she also made the artistic decision to push most of the tracks far past the normal length of the three-minute mark.
"We just kinda broke all the rules" she says, chuckling in proud delight. "Putting out that many songs and then some of the tracks are longer than the three minute thing and then the other rule that we broke was starting the album off with an acoustic solo track instead of putting it at the end where most people would put it."
The acoustic solo track Williams refers to is "Compassion", a stark track that not only stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the album in terms of instrumentation, but also in mood. In it, Williams sounds positively exasperated, imploring the listener to be compassionate towards others' struggles.
"You don't know / What wars are going on / Down there / Where the spirit meets the bone", she sings, torturously raking the meaning out of each word. Gripping and unsettling, "Compassion" also belies the rest of the double LP, serving as appropriate warning that this is a work unlike any other in Williams' canon.
The opening track also marks another first for Williams. The lyrics are derived from a poem by her father, Miller Williams, the renowned poet who read his one of his poems, "Of History and Hope", at President Clinton's second inaugural. According to the younger Williams, adapting one of her father's poems to music was a daunting process.
"Yeah, it was very challenging," she admits. "It's something that I actually had been trying to do for several years and, for a long time, I'd always wanted to [do]. You know, there were a couple of his poems that I've wanted to try to turn into a song and this one came about."
In the end, it was the encouragement of Williams' husband that finally prompted her to take on the challenge. "You know, he said, 'If you could get that poem and then make it into a song, that would just, you know, really make the album.' So I just started messing around with it and I did it. I finally did it. Now that I've done that one I wanna go back and see if I can do another one."
If all of these artistic firsts are starting to sound like a risky proposal, rest assured that Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is anything but. There's no experimental meandering, no half-executed concept pieces, no random studio chatter included because, hey, it's a double album, man. No, this isn't Lucinda Williams' jam band album, nor is it her let's-ditch-the-drummer-and-get-a-drum-machine album.
In fact, whereas many other artists have looked at the double album as the chance to make some grandiose artistic statement or awkwardly work through some artistic midlife crisis, Williams never had any plans whatsoever to make one at all.
"We didn't go in saying, 'We're gonna do a double album.' I had a lot of material and, you know, we just ended up with a lot of great tracks. We came to realize, 'We're gonna have a hard time. There's no way we're gonna narrow this down to just one album.' So we decided to break the rules and put out a double album. So that decision was made after."
While Williams acknowledges that releasing a double album is practically inviting critical scrutiny, the fan reaction has been nothing but enthusiastic. "Maybe some of the critics might go, 'Well, you know, it's kind of a lot' or whatever,'" she muses. "But the fans -- first and foremost -- every time I announced it at my shows, I'd say, 'Hey, I have a new album coming out and it's a double album' and people would just cheer and thought it was great because they're getting more songs, you know?"
All it takes is one listen to Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone to allay any fears that Williams forsook quality in the pursuit of epic expression. While there are twice as many songs that are, in some cases, twice as long as a typical Williams song, the album flows from beginning to end, showcasing a mastery of the genres she has spent her career exploring -- from country to folk, rock to blues.
And yet, while Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone explores territory that Williams is very familiar with, it also charters into new musical terrain. Many of the tracks on the album sound influenced by the R&B and soul of the '60s and '70s. Songs like "Stand Right by Each Other" and "When I Look at the World" defy categorization, blurring the lines between a country lick and an R&B riff or a southern drawl and a soulful croon. Williams has a name for this new slant on her music.
"A lot of the kind of the style that came out on this album is what I describe as country-soul. When I was writing some of the songs I had been listening to Tony Joe White. He happened to be in town and we brought him in for a couple of days. And I had always loved that sound, you know, Bobbie Gentry, Tony Joe White, [Dusty Springfield's] Dusty in Memphis. And I had been listening to, a lot, that Dan Penn reissue double album that came out, the Fame Studios stuff."
What Williams was listening to inevitably influenced her songwriting, inspiring her to stretch her sound. "I wanted to [write] some kind of more up-tempo songs, like 'Protection' and 'Stand Right by Each Other' and 'Walk On'. I really wanted to kind of flesh out the songs, get a certain sound."
That certain sound that Williams strived for is not only apparent in the music, but also in her voice and singing, which sound more nuanced than on any of her previous albums. Though the differences are subtle, there are discernible changes in her phrasing and pacing, which help create the soulful feel of the album and reveal even more dimensions to her vocal talents.
"I'm becoming a better singer, you know?" she observes. "Just learning how to use my voice, you know, in better ways. I mean, that's just kind of a growth thing, I think. And also as a writer, I'm kind of writing more for my voice -- more than I did when I was younger. A lot of tracks, when I was singing, I would be sitting down and I would be just real relaxed and sing real close into the mic."
Sonically, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is enveloping and warm, even intimate, as if Williams is performing live at a small venue. It's the kind of album that was made for vinyl, one that fills the entire room with meticulously crafted layers of sound that surround the listener. And, as always, Williams' voice is front and center.
"When I record, I like to be able to hear all the nuances in my vocals and I like the vocal to be, you know, kind of up front. Kind of that old-school sound of, you know, the more upfront vocal as opposed to the vocal kind of buried back in the track, like a lot of the newer stuff is now -- which I don't like. You're probably able to hear more of my vocals in a way that maybe, you know, hadn't been recorded like that before. I think it's just a combination of, you know, me growing as a vocalist and then also just recording it really well."
Lyrically, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone showcases Williams' talent for translating complex emotional reactions into concrete, familiar imagery and everyday situations. "Wrong Number", for example, uses missed connections and miscommunications to symbolize the emotional disconnect of a failed relationship. "I can't tell you why / He never checked in / But I reckon it's because / He's in trouble again", Williams sings, depicting a narrator whose bewilderment about her lover's whereabouts reflects her own inner confusion.
Williams credits her father for her ability to transcribe into words what others can only feel and hope to eventually understand, much less articulate. Though she never studied writing formally, observing her father at work proved to be an even better education.
"I was really fortunate in that my dad was pretty much my mentor and I kind of had this informal apprenticeship, you know? I just learned kind of by osmosis and by showing him my songs as I started writing and he would make suggestions here and there -- just little things -- and point things out. And I would sit in on some of his creative writing workshops and just kind of learn by hearing him talk about poetry and writing."
But though Williams learned a lot from her father about poetry that can be used in songwriting -- such as creating specific scenes and employing imagery to convey emotion -- she is more convinced than ever that he was correct that the two genres have very distinct differences that make a poet a poet and a songwriter a songwriter.
"My dad was always pretty adamant about the differentiation between poetry and songwriting. I remember as a teenager when I first discovered Bob Dylan and everybody was going 'Bob Dylan's a poet. He's a poet!', my dad would be debating this with his writing students. They would be saying that he's a poet and dad would be like, 'No he's not. He's a songwriter,' as if being a songwriter isn't on as high a level as being a poet. And I always wasn't sure about what the answer to that was either until I sat down and tried to turn a poem into a song. And then I remembered what my dad used to say a long time ago and I realized, 'You know what? He was right -- these are two different animals.'"
If anyone could blur that distinction between poet and songwriter, of course, it's Williams, who on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone makes blurring artistic distinctions an art in itself. Whether it's country or soul, poetry or lyrics, is almost irrelevant when it's all this damn good. And while the album consists of 20 songs, it somehow feels too brief, like things are getting too good to end when they do. But for those who are left wanting more, Williams has good news.
"We actually recorded enough for three albums. We ended up with about 30 really great tracks. We're gonna put [the album's worth of additional new material] out later."