There's always a fair bit of dirt that kicks up in Lucinda Williams' distinctive drawly vocals. She's tough and confrontational, and on her 11th studio album, Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone, that toughness initially comes across as even more deeply entrenched. It takes a little while to discover the tenderness that goes along with it.
At 20 songs and 102 minutes long, DWTSMTB at times feels like a long-haul truck drive of hurt, a double country soul album replete with the kinds of songs of suffering and injustice that Williams does best, except that the wrongdoing is less personal this time out; there's a new emphasis on fire and brimstone, gospel rock'n'roll on songs like "Protection," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Everything But The Truth."
As Williams' first release on her own label (Highway 20), DWTSMTB has some meaningful nods to her origins: the first song, "Compassion," is a quietly strummed, sadly implored adaptation of a poem by her father, Miller Williams; "Wrong Number" lyrically recalls "Changed The Locks" from Williams' seminal 1988 self-titled album.
"East Side Of Town" is a beautifully delivered ballad that sounds like it's lobbed at a hypocritical, fearful politician, but it's on upbeat songs like "Stand Right By Each Other" and "Walk On" (an empowering pep talk for a younger woman) that Williams hits her soul stride.
Longtime fans might smile at the rhymes on "Big Mess" ("I gotta, a handle on things/ Yeah I got my prescription/ I changed the channel/ I stopped my subscription"). "When I Look At The World," meanwhile, with co-producer Greg Leisz on six- and 12-string guitars and Elvis Costello's rhythm section (drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher) is classic Williams, the weary litany of abuses endured in the verses foiled by the light release of the chorus. (Highway 20)