The Album: A Genre Study -or- A Look at the Latest from Lucinda Williams

For the purpose of this argument, it is necessary to understand an album as a collection of recordings of songs released with accompanying artwork. A common theme or themes or a narrative arc may or may not connect the songs on an album. Although I’m tempted to refer to the album as a medium, that term should be reserved to describe the method of distribution through which the album is released: vinyl record, compact cassette, compact disc, or digital files. Though any collection of recordings of songs with accompanying artwork constitutes an album, an Album with a capital A is primarily conceived by the artist(s) whose name(s) are attached to the physical or digital product. In other words, while artists such as The Temptations, The Backstreet Boys, and Miley Cyrus release albums, artists like The Beatles, Sonic Youth, and St. Vincent release albums and Albums.

It’s therefore constructive to refer to the Album as a genre. The Oxford English Dictionary defines genre as “a particular style or category of works of art.” (1) To those ends, the individual artist stylizes the Album as altogether unique from other presentations of popular music while the audience simultaneously categorizes the Album as distinctive from other presentations of popular music: the single, the music video, the EP, the music festival, the concert, the concert film, and so on.

Because the creator(s) and the audience collectively engage in this dance of meaning-making, genre is socially constructed. It’s important to note here that genre and gender share etymological roots in the Anglo-Norman and Middle French gendre. (2) Gender, like genre, is a social construct, and as social theorist Joane Nagel observes, social constructs are “both performed—where individuals and groups engage in…‘presentations of self,’ and performative—where… boundaries are constituted by day-to-day affirmations, reinforcements, and enactments of…differences.” (3, Nagel’s emphasis) To return to an aforementioned point, gender and genre are individually stylized, or performed, and collectively categorized, or performative.

These constructs, of course, evolve as society evolves. Looking at American conceptions of manhood, for example, one observes a pronouncedly dramatic shift from James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause to Michael Cera in 2007’s Juno. As societal gender expectations have shifted, so too has the way in which society collects and consumes music. Momentarily remaining with bumbling beta male Cera, his 2008-vehicle Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist depicts a world of mix-CDs and playlists. A playlist, or a mix, is a collection of recordings of songs curated by an individual who exists within a broader listening audience.

Typically, each song on a playlist is by a different recording artist. Thus, the playlist is diametrically opposed to the wholly single artistic voice of the Album. Unlike with the Album, the playlist allows the individual member of the listening audience agency over his or her own listening experience. This agency empowers individuals who exist outside of historical hierarchical power structures. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to situate the Album as a paragon of (white, heteronormative, cisnormative) masculinity. Who historically records and releases Albums, who collects and consumes Albums, and the situational and character archetypes most commonly presented by Albums all clearly evidence this gendered genre binary.

Rock & Roll and record stores are both old boys’ clubs. Historically, it is men who record and release Albums. There are exceptions to this rule—Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Dolly Parton for example—but those exceptions are few and far between. Similarly, the culture of record collecting is peopled almost entirely by men. Having worked in a record store and seen the types of people who buy records, and possessing my own modest record collection, I can attest to record collecting being a man’s—or perhaps more accurately, a boy’s—game. Finally, the lyrical and visual content historically found on Albums—as opposed to the lyrical and visual content of more A&R-controlled, singles-minded popular music (much of which is certainly problematic and misogynistic in its own right)—hearkens back to mid-century conceptions of masculinity. For example, Bob Dylan’s photo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is an allusion to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Elsewhere, the general listening audience will find decidedly masculine lyrical themes of rebellion, recklessness, conquest, violence, and misogyny throughout the genre of the Album. Even if I were to suggest themes of introspection recur throughout the Album’s history, I would have little trouble pointing to historical examples of societal expectations suggesting men are to do the thinking.

By presenting the Album as a masculine ideal, I forward that the decline of the Album is not the result of decreasing attention spans, as is so often suggested, but rather as correlative to the decline of white, heterosexual, cisgender male hegemony. Of course, the Album persists and will continue to persist for at least the foreseeable future. Analogously, we continue and will continue to see, probably unfortunately, straight white dudes occupying positions of power. But just as we see power slowly shift—evidenced by the ever-whitening knuckles gripping all those guns—we also see a shift to a briefer running time on the Album. Perhaps in an effort to restore some of the listener’s agency, artists are increasingly releasing Albums with less than ten songs that run for under 40-minutes. In recent years, Cloud Nothings, Japandroids, The Men, and Sturgill Simpson have all released sub-40-minute albums comprised of fewer than ten songs.

If the Album is, on average, getting shorter, what is to be made of the plague of Double Albums released in the final two sales quarters of 2014? Ty Segall’s Maniuplator, Jeff Tweedy’s Sukierae, Lucinda Williams’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, and Foxygen’s …And Star Power are all recently released or soon-to-be-released Double Albums. The sudden appearance of so many double albums is not a mystery: these are all backwards-looking Albums by obstinate artists who would dig in their heels before retreating or changing direction. Segall and Foxygen revisit tropes first seen in 1960s-psychedelic rock and 1970s-glam rock. Tweedy, despite his avant experimentations, is a traditionalist both in terms of songwriting and recording and releasing Albums. Wilco, the band with which he usually records and plays, is an old boys’ club if ever there were one.

Williams’s first crack at a Double Album is perhaps more difficult to reconcile given an understanding of the Album as a masculine ideal, but Williams has spent her entire career subverting gender expectations. Releasing a Double Album is just the latest in a long line of instances in which Williams has thrown up a middle finger to the notion that ladies can’t rock just as hard as the fellas.

*****

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone 1

The elements that have made Lucinda Williams a favorite amongst fans of Americana and Rock & Roll music are all present on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone: the bruised vocal delivery, the heart-on-sleeve lyrics, the carefully-assembled cast of supporting players, and the meticulous arrangements, performances, and production. But I can’t help but wonder if a more concise statement might also be a more powerful one. Do we really need over 100 minutes of new music from an artist who released her definitive statement 16 years ago?

We might not need it, but we got it.

And though I think Double Albums are ostentatious and indulgent (the one exception perhaps being Ryan Adams’s Cold Roses), this is Williams’s strongest effort since 2007’s West, undoubtedly eclipsing 2008’s Little Honey and 2011’s Blessed.

The album begins with “Compassion,” a song Williams developed around a poem written by her father Miller Williams. A guitarist, perhaps Williams herself, finger picks a lonesome, minor-key figure on an acoustic guitar before Williams sings, “For those you listen to/ Have compassion/ Even if they don’t want it/ What seems cynicism/ Is always a sign/ …of things no ears have heard/…of things no eyes have seen/ You do not know what wars are going on/ Down there where the spirit meets the bone.” It’s a simple, but powerful, sentiment with which to begin her 11th studio album.

On the album’s second track, “Protection,” a ZZ Top backbeat kicks in and, on the chorus, Williams suggests she needs protection from a number of things (the enemy of love, the enemy of righteousness, the enemy of good, the enemy of kindness, the enemy of Rock & Roll), confessing—as she has done memorably throughout her career—that she does have some wars going on down where the spirit meets the bone.

Elsewhere on the album, “West Memphis,” with its country-soul, Memphis groove, invokes the West Memphis Three, resigning itself to a corrupt legal system: “They didn’t like the music I listened to/ They didn’t like the way I dressed/ They set me up with a forced confession/ I never had a chance/ They threw the book at me at my expense/ They got no common sense/ But that’s the way they do things in West Memphis.” The next track, “Cold Day in Hell,” features lovely backing vocals from Greg Leisz, Doug Pettibone, and Gia Ciambotti, and finds Williams plainly telling an ex-lover he won’t get another shot.

The album’s second record begins with “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a swampy, electric blues stomper that recalls “Atonement” from Williams’s excellent 2003 release World Without Tears. Here, as she has done throughout her career, Williams expertly relates biblical imagery to the commonplace; a good-for-nothing man is seen as the embodiment of all evil, the snake in the Garden of Eden, Satan himself. Of course, this metaphor serves to subvert that old Rock & Roll trope that suggests the devil is a woman; here, the devil is a man. Later, on “This Old Heartache,” Williams skillfully dusts off the classic Country & Western swing she more thoroughly explored on her earlier albums. The album closes with a beautiful rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” For nearly 10 minutes, Williams’s voice cracks over a sorrowful slow-burner that perfectly concludes Williams’s best release in seven years.

There are two instruments worth noting on any release from Williams. The first is Williams’s voice. There is pathos and ethos to both Williams’s singing and the words she sings that effortlessly situate the listener in the location the song is meant to conjure. This location is usually one of the homes Williams has known in the American South, either Texas, Louisiana, or Tennessee, but is also occasionally Williams’s current home of California. There are few singers who have this effect on me (Jay Farrar with his Rust Belt ruminations and the Holy Trinity of Truckers—Cooley, Patterson, and Isbell—might be the only other ones), and it’s a skill that simply cannot be underestimated. When a singer can do that to me with only his or her voice, the results will always be at least somewhat compelling.

But that voice isn’t the only thing Williams has going for her on her albums. Like all of the best songwriters, she also has a stable of singularly gifted guitarists at her beck and call. There are so many talented axe-men listed in the liner notes for this album, it’s very difficult to know who plays what. I definitely recognize Williams’s frequent collaborator Doug Pettibone’s incendiary playing in places throughout the album and Bill Frisell’s unique reliance on effects pedals in other places, but beyond those two guys, all I know is that the guitar-work is phenomenal throughout.

That reliance on men to play the lead guitar parts (and to provide almost all of the instrumentation for that matter) and her reliance on the guitar in general—the most phallic of instruments—are additional ways in which Lucinda is looking backwards on this album. It’s good to look forward, but looking backwards can be pretty damn great too. After all, I have no place begrudging someone for looking back. I’m a cultish devotee to the album. Hell, I started a blog just so I could write about the damn things.

The bottom line is Lucinda is one of the most compelling songwriters we’ve seen in the last 30 years. On this album, she continues to add to her already impressive resume regardless of the direction she is facing in doing so.

Endnotes:
1. “genre, n.: Oxford English Dictionary.” Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77629
2. “gender, n.; Oxford English Dictionary.” Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77468#
3. Nagel, Joane. “Ethnicity and Sexuality.” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000): 107-33.