Lucinda Williams opens the first double album of her career singing words she didn’t even write. “Compassion” was adapted from a poem by her father, the former U.S. Poet Laureate Miller Williams, and it sounds like a lesson to any artist or storyteller: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” she sings in that famous slur of a voice, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. “You do not know what wars are going on, down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Williams has spent more than three decades recounting her own wars, first on a couple of acoustic blues records and then on a string of country albums that remain unrivaled for their depth of insight and purity of voice. Even if her output has suffered as it has increased over the last 15 years, Williams remains a formidable chronicler of heartache and loss. “Compassion,” however, doesn’t sound like she’s asking her listeners to empathize with her. It’s just the opposite: Dark and quiet, the song sounds like an internal monologue, a reminder to herself not to judge others too quickly or too harshly.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone explores that idea across a collection that ranges from skewed folk, conventional blues rock and some of the best country tunes Williams has written in more than a decade. “East Side of Town” and “West of Memphis” are sharply observed wrong-side-of-the-tracks laments, each stronger for its proximity to the other. The latter is a bitter retelling of the case of the West Memphis 3, and you can almost hear Williams spitting the chorus: “That’s the way we do things in West Memphis.”
The second half picks up considerably, as her band gets looser and rambles across songs like the honky-tonkin’ “This Old Heartache” and the slow-burn country-soul number “Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing).” With its backward guitars and subdued R&B rhythms, “Big Mess” balances some of her gutsiest lyrics with her most anguished vocals. This second disc may in fact be Williams’s best album of this century: her most consistent, her most wounded, her most determined. It closes with then 10-minute “Magnolia,” far and away the longest track of her career. Most of it is instrumental, as though she knows exactly what she can convey and lets the guitars do the rest.