So there you are, having a drink in a bar in West Memphis, kind of wishing you’d stuck to the tourist trail rather than going off-piste in search of the ‘real’ experience. The band setting up in the corner look like they might have just finished beating someone up round the back, never mind the punters, one of whom seems to have moved his bar stool uncomfortably close behind you. Key scenes from Deliverance start to project themselves at the back of your imagination.
Eventually the drummer strikes up, big, tattooed forearms bearing down on the skins like they owe him money. It’s a low down, dirty beat, heavy as the hot afternoon, and when the guitars and bass come in, you’re still not sure if it’s going to be blues, country, rock, or a mélange of all three. You try to work out a way of asking your new friend on the bar stool behind you that, without using the word mélange.
Just then the barmaid, who’s done everything to make you feel welcome bar spit in your drink, comes out front, slings on an acoustic and exchanges a few muttered words with the guitarist. Then she fronts up to the mike and stares you dead in the eye, as if to say, ‘What?’
Except if it’s Lucinda Williams it would come out as, ‘Whuuut?’
That’s exactly what Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is like. Musically, it draws from that primordial swamp of country, blues, soul, and all the other truly North American DNA that rock staggered out of, muddy and baying, all those years ago. Except it stays down with one foot firmly in the swamp: though it only occasionally uses lap steel guitar, there’s a country structure to many of the songs; on others, a shimmering Hammond organ reminds you of the gospel influence.
And then there’s Williams’s voice, a remarkable thing that’s three parts Eartha Kitt, two parts Stevie Nicks, if the latter had spent the last thirty years drinking bourbon and smoking Virginia Gold Cut; half ways between a growl and a yowl, like a partially tamed mountain lion that’s been given a guitar.
If this all sounds a bit too, er, rootsy for you, I should say that there’s an intelligence behind the lyrics that takes the material way beyond your average Louisiana bar band. Indeed, the double album kicks off with a poem by Williams’s father set to music, Compassion: ‘Have compassion for everyone you meet/ even if they don’t want it/ what seems conceit/ always a sign…’
Elsewhere, Williams preaches eloquently against the enemy of righteousness, good, kindness and love (‘Protection’) fearmongers and foolishness (‘Foolishness’) and, it seems, Old Nick himself (‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’); evoking that gospel (or maybe that should be Southern Baptist) root.
Elsewhere, my favourite so far (as you might have gathered from the opening sequence) is ‘West Memphis:’ ‘I was framed and sentenced/to a life in prison/for a crime I didn’t commit/wasn’t nobody listened/or rose to my defense/somebody planted the evidence/and he’s been lying ever since/but that’s the way we do things/in West Memphis.’
The other thing that sets this album apart is the musicianship. The drums – and this is a compliment from a guitar player who normally pays little attention to what the bozo at the back’s doing, past keeping the beat – lay down a heavy groove that drives the songs; the guitars themselves sound great, and there’s some scorching work on them from Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell. As well as good stuff on the organ from Ian McLagan, there’s judicious use of backing vocals to sweeten Williams’s lead.
This is a superb double album, which will merit listening to again and again to get the full effect. One thing, though: if you find yourself telling your nearest and dearest that this is how you roll, and if they don’t like it they can get the hell out of the way, you’ve probably had it on repeat one time too many.
Unless you’re actually from West Memphis, of course. In which case that’s absolutely fine.