One of Stax Records’ early standouts, as heard on the melancholy 1961 single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” Memphis-born William Bell was a smooth crooner who had little in common with noisier labelmates Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas. A masterpiece of guilt-stricken regret, the self-penned “Water” underscored the shared DNA of country and soul, a connection made explicit when Gram Parsons covered the song on The Byrds’ 1968 outing Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
While Bell never became a major star, he went on to make other noteworthy contributions, including co-writing “Born Under a Bad Sign” (memorably recorded by Albert King, and later Cream) with Booker T. Jones, and scoring his own big hit, “Tryin’ to Love Two,” in 1977.
Given that he’s now well into his seventies, This Is Where I Live is a shockingly impressive return. Bell remains an elegantly compelling singer, whose voice has frayed only slightly around the edges, reflecting hard-earned life lessons. Bathed in a warm nostalgic glow, the album uses horns and organ to echo the classic Stax sound without copying it, and producer John Leventhal nudges Bell in the direction of the polished folk-pop of his work with Rosanne Cash (Leventhal’s wife) and Shawn Colvin, which isn’t a radical stretch.
Considering Leventhal’s contribution, he could almost have received joint billing. In addition to producing, this jack of many trades arranged; co-recorded; mixed; played guitar (note the gorgeous fills, recalling Curtis Mayfield), bass, keyboards and sometimes drums; sang background vocals, and took a co-writer credit with Bell on the majority of the songs. There’s no mention of who swept the studio floor when sessions were finished.
For all Leventhal’s sympathetic support, This Is Where I Live is William Bell’s show. A captivating storyteller on deep ballads and bright toe-tappers alike, he roils in the throes of obsessive desire (“Poison in the Well”), offers tender compassion (“I Will Take Care of You”), recalls youthful thrills (the title track) and confronts disappointment (“The Three of Me”), not to mention delivering a stark, chilling take on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” This Is Where I Live would make a fitting coda to Bell’s distinguished, under-celebrated career, but hopefully it’s the start of a new chapter instead.