“Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” is an ambitious statement, arguably the most so of Williams’ already considerable career. And in another first for her, there’s an array of guests helping out, which for some artists would seem a sign of insecurity but here comes off as underscoring a sense of confidence.
Jakob Dylan joins her singing “It’s Gonna Rain,” at once hopeful and somber, the rain both a promise and a threat. The mixed emotions are further illustrated by the snaky lines of guest guitarist Bill Frisell darting around those of longtime Williams cohort Greg Leisz, who also served as co-producer for the album.
Other guests include Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and drummer Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. And Williams enlists Tony Joe White to thread his distinctively swampy guitar through “West Memphis,” the real-life tale of a famously disputed murder case from the ‘90s. In her hands it becomes an epic, backwoods gothic song-story in the mode of Bobbie Gentry or Tony Joe White.
That Southern, swampy feel is also found in the gospel-soul chorus of “Protection” and the Stax-like horns on “One More Day,” while “Burning Bridges” would make a solid cover candidate for Tom Petty (a fan who has done Williams "I Changed the Locks” in the past). And there’s the sultry menace of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And she concludes with another homage to a master of economy, covering “Magnolia” by JJ Cale, who died last year.
When it’s all done, Williams has brought out the full range of country-folk-rock shadings she’s used in the past. And there’s at least one specific allusion to her catalog, as in the stern “Everything But the Truth” she tells a troubled friend to take charge of life — “you gotta settle up with this sweet old world” — citing her 1992 song “Sweet Old World,” a too-late note to a friend who’d committed suicide.
The difference is key. Where “Sweet Old World” was a tender, sorrowful scolding of a lost spirit, this is a get-it-together admonishment meant to have impact before it’s too late. Similarly, “Bone” is not a passive look back, not a career summation. This is a career-defining album in its scope and sweep.
At the center of “Bone” is that thin line between hope and dread. Several songs catalog complaints, troubles, heartaches — a “Big Mess,” as one song title puts it, explicitly. Ultimately, though, it’s hope that tips the scale, no more profoundly than in “When I Look at the World.”
“I’ve been unwelcome, I’ve been unloved,” she sings — but then she sees the world “in all its glory,” in a different way every time she looks at it.
Simply putting out a 20-song double album is a risky move, and for someone known for artistic economy, it's something that might seem an indulgent disconnect. Is every song a treasure? Of course not. But with her spirited reach, Lucinda Williams at 61 has made an album that stands with her best, a series of songs that ask us to join her in looking at the world anew.