Lucinda Williams had considered releasing a double CD at least once before, but her record company argued against it. Now the veteran singer-songwriter is putting music out on her own label.
Problem solved. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, with 20 songs on two CDs, is available now.
“Once we had all the tracks, it was clear to everyone that there was no way we were going to narrow this down to one album,” said Williams, who recorded 34 songs in Los Angeles with the help of Bill Frisell, Tony Joe White, Ian McLagan, Jakob Dylan, Elvis Costello’s regular rhythm section and others.
Double CDs are usually frowned upon for good reason. They cost more to make, and more to buy. They’re so often bloated with substandard material that it’s a critical cliché to say that judicious editing would have made for a killer single CD.
Music executive Kim Buie hates that last argument, especially because “in some cases, it’s true.”
Buie, who worked at Williams’ former label and is now at the Thirty Tigers distribution company that is handling the new release, worried that Williams was asking too much of fans because earlier this year one of her old albums was re-released in a two-CD format. Then Buie listened.
“As the music started emerging, it was like, holy crap, this is a treasure trove,” she said.
The disc debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, with higher first-week sales than her last new release, despite the $18.98 list price.
Williams’ prolific streak at age 61 upends two beliefs that had become part of her narrative: that she’s a perfectionist who slowly parcels out material, and that her creative well would run dry without romantic turmoil.
Chalk it up to being a late bloomer, Williams said.
“I grew up around poets and novelists who got better as they got older,” she said. “It’s not like the rock-pop world. My dad (poet Miller Williams) said to me once that poets aren’t really considered mature in their writing until their mid-50s and beyond.”
Williams, who married her manager Tom Overby in 2009, was taken aback by journalists who wondered if personal happiness would hurt her work. Yet it’s a myth she helped perpetuate. She’d lose herself in relationships and develop writer’s block, which would disappear when the boyfriend did.
That cycle has ended, and Williams is liberated by it.
“I always fantasized about being with someone who would inspire my creativity, like the romantic couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she said.
The newfound freedom also has made her more outward-looking in her writing, a trend that started with the title cut to her album “Blessed.” She wanted to write some socially conscious songs in the mold of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” or Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One.”
The new album takes its title from a line in one of her father’s poems, which she sets to music in “Compassion.” The stark acoustic cut is not representative of the project musically – it’s mostly her unique stew of country, blues, rock and soul – but it does set a thematic tone. She sings bitingly about men wrongfully imprisoned, and inviting a rich man to see how the other half lives.
The lovely “When I Look at the World” catalogues a series of ills, which she turns around in a soulful chorus: “Then I look at the world and all its glory, I look at the world and it’s a different story, each time I look at the world.”
“People misunderstand me and think I’m this depressed person, and I’m not,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m an optimist.”