“It’s a magnificent, career-defining set, full of hard-won wisdom, assertive independence – and compassion in abundance.” Independent newspaper.
OK, so Lucinda Williams’ new album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone isn’t strictly speaking a blues album – but it’s suffused with the blues, as is a lot of her work. Songs on this album like Protection, West Memphis, Foolishness and Everything But the Truth are pretty bluesy, and the rest of the 20 songs – well, they are just the best Americana you’re going to hear all year. Make no mistake, in a career where she has produced outstanding albums, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone might just be the very best (so far).
The songs are strong musically, with two guitars weaving in and out throughout, augmented at just the right point by Hammond organ; and lyrically, the album is urgent and thought-provoking. As Williams admits herself, “love, sex, death, redemption” are all jam-packed together here.
Some of the album is very contemporary in terms of recent events in the US. East Side of Town about a neighbourhood that is “across the poverty line” and where “you can’t wait to get the hell out” has obvious echoes of Ferguson and other places where racial tensions have recently surfaced. West Memphis, inspired by the West Memphis Three case from 1993, presents us with a man who gets on the wrong side of the law because “They didn’t like the music I listened to, they didn’t like the way I dressed.” The result? – “they set me up with a false confession, I never had a chance.” But – “don’t come around here and mess with us, ‘cos that’s the way we do things in West Memphis,” sings Williams, protesting against her country’s failing justice system.
So there’s an acerbic edge of protest, to be sure, but what we get most on the album is compassion, set up by the first song, an adaptation of a poem by William’s father, Miller Williams. The song features Lucinda Williams accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. The sparse arrangement along with the singer’s languorous and raw vocals is at once arresting – you simply have to sit up and pay attention to the lyrics.
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.
What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on, down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
The advice here goes against the grain for most of us. The most natural thing in the world is simply to react to the way that others treat us. So we respond like for like – if the response is cold, we’re cold back; if it’s angry or unpleasant, we respond in kind. But the song points out an important point to remember – we just don’t know what is going on in the lives of the people we encounter day by day. What sort of struggles has the other person had prior to meeting us that might easily explain how they’ve responded to us? If only we knew about the illness, the bereavement, the family problems and so on – maybe we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get angry with the retail assistant who seemed indifferent to us, the friend who didn’t seem to be listening properly to us, the call centre operative who was short with us. And the point is driven home by this wonderful line from which the album gets its title – “You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
You just don’t know – so, hey, have a little compassion. Neighborliness is the name of the game here, something that is too often in short supply, where the way of the world these days is to pay attention to No.1, look after your own interests, keep focused on your goals, on where you’re going. Taking a little time, taking a deep breath, looking around, paying attention to the other people we encounter, from family to friends to strangers is something most of us aren’t so good at. Lucinda Williams here brings us up short and brings us face to face with the fact of our common humanity and need for, well, compassion.