The 11th album from the queen of Americana (apart from Emmylou and Shelby Lynne and all the other queens of Americana) is a double. Here’s what we’ve learned about it…
It features 20 tracks, evenly split over two CDs.
This gives it the heft, and weight, of a classic. It feels like Williams - who has been making records since 1979 - has plenty to say. A grand statement from an elder stateswoman, if you will. Songs fairly gush out of her here, a torrent of tales and insights about life and love from a woman who has been there, done that, and please don’t slam the door on the way out. As the title suggests, it’s raw, personal stuff.
**Williams is a master - sorry, mistress - of American music forms. **
Soul, folk, blues, country, rock - you name it, the lioness of Lake Charles (as literally no one has ever called her) knows how to seamlessly incorporate it into her work. Listening to Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is like being taken on a guided tour of US roots and rock music styles.
**She can even do pop. **
True. Burning Bridges has the sleek gait and burnished surfaces of a midtempo Stevie Nicks number. It could even be a hit, something she has yet to really achieve to date, give or take 2003’s Righteously, which only grazed the US Adult Top 40.
**Her voice is raggedy and rough. **
If you like your females winsome, you should probably alight here. Because the 61-year-old appears to have smoked several packs of fags before committing her voice to tape, not to mention endured several dozen broken affairs. “Weatherbeaten” perhaps describes it best. With a side order of “snarling”. The titles say a lot: Foolishness, Something Wicked This Way Comes, It’s Gonna Rain - throughout, Williams pitches it somewhere between rage and regret, with room for some friendliness and no little fire. As she sings at one point, “What I do in my own time/Is none of your business and all of mine.”
**You can see why Dylan is a fan, and why Neil Young might be. **
She has a way with words, and she’s no slouch on the guitar, although she doesn’t have bad back-up: step forward and take a bow, Bill Frisell and Tony Joe White, who wield their axes alongside various members of The Wallflowers and The Attractions.
**It’s the album that Taylor Swift might make after 40 years of hard living and all-nighters in bars. **
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone is AOR in the best possible sense - it’s music for adults, made by an adult, with precious little pandering to the demands of the marketplace, any marketplace (unless it’s one where they sell lots of beer). There is warmth in abundance - the opening track, after all, is Compassion - but she can do cutting when it’s called for: Cold Day In Hell tells it like it is, as does Big Mess.
It’s a career-defining peak.
It matches her previous triumphs Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998), World Without Tears (2003) and West (2007), and in a way - in many ways - supersedes them. It is a new high gleaned from a lifetime of lows. “I’ve been let down, I’v been kicked around, I’ve been wasted, I’ve been on the brink, I’ve had my faith tested. I’ve been cheated on and made a fool of,” she groans on When I Look At The World, which is like Tom Petty doing The Byrds in slow motion. Her misery is our pleasure. Expect lots of payback at next year’s Grammys.