Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, album review: This is a magnificent, career-defining piece of work

Compassion is the abiding emotion through most of the 20 songs

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Following recent triumphs by Dolly Parton and Kate Bush, this week sees the release of two fine albums from other grandes dames, neither required to demean themselves by “playing young”.

In Lucinda Williams’ case, her new double-album may be the best work of her career, a compelling survey of love and life to challenge the bitter insights of West and World without Tears. With her long-time trio augmented by guitarists Bill Frisell and Tony Joe White, along with sundry Wallflowers and Attractions, her blues-inflected country-soul sound is subtly tempered here to fit each song’s requirements, from the gritty, dark Americana noir employed to contemplate the fall from grace in “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, to the pedal-steel-streaked country lament “This Old Heartache”.

Williams’ wracked vocal tones, meanwhile, have rarely been more effectively employed, perfectly matching the desperation caused by “a string of bad decisions” in “Burning Bridges”, and wringing tender compassion for the plight of a relative vainly searching for their wayward kin in “Wrong Number”. Compassion is the abiding emotion through most of the 20 songs: it’s the title of the opening track, Williams’ setting of a poem by her father recommending “compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it”.

Elsewhere, the minutiae of love are insightfully addressed in songs like the swampy Southern soul plaint “Stand Right By Each Other” and especially the country-rocker “Stowaway in Your Heart”, a beautiful conceit sure to become a standard. All told, it’s a magnificent, career-defining set, full of hard-won wisdom, assertive independence – and compassion in abundance.