Where Are the Good Souls, the Better Angels? Asks Lucinda Williams
On her new searing album, Good Souls Better Angels, Lucinda Williams rages against the darkness of our era and seeks the strength to get through it.
Good Souls Better Angels
Highway 20 Records
24 April 2020
Man I got a right
To talk about what I see
Way too much is going wrong
Right in front of me
These lines, from "You Can't Rule Me", the first track on Lucinda Williams' searing new album Good Souls Better Angels, set the theme and tone for the rest of the record, the singer-songwriter's 15th studio release since her 1979 debut, Ramblin'. The album opener is loosely based on Memphis Minnie's rollicking 1937 blues of the same name. But whereas Minnie was laying down the law to a greedy and domineering lover, Williams' ire is aimed at what's been going wrong since a former TV game show host and shady real estate mogul took up residence in the White House. Williams is pissed off and pained by what she sees and feels, and out of those perceptions and emotions, she's made the rawest, angriest music of her four-decades-plus career.
The album's 12 tracks, nine of which Williams wrote with her husband and co-producer Tom Overby (Greg Garing's "Down Past the Bottom" is the only one contributed by another writer) aren't topical broadsides. Even "Man without a Soul", about you-know-who, doesn't name the target of its ire. And some of the songs focus on individual and interpersonal matters—depression, drug abuse, domestic violence. Gone, however, are the story-songs for which Williams is famous—no recollections of a child "in the backseat about four or five years", no drunken angels shot through the heart, no poignant portraits of a dejected Memphis Pearl reflecting on her life's disappointments.
Instead, the new songs evoke the current political and social climate and how it affects one's emotional weather; inner and outer worlds are both turbulent, dark, and oppressive. The album's title can seem ironic given that Good Souls Better Angels is all about bad news, bad relationships, bad memories, bad people.
Sounds off-putting? It could've been, but instead, the album is thrilling because the music is just so damn good. Williams, on electric and acoustic guitars, and backed by her excellent Buick 6 band—bassist David Sutton, drummer Butch Norton, and Stuart Mathis on guitars and violin, with organist Mark T. Jordan on two tracks—delivers a blues and blues-rock set that captures the sound of a live ensemble, with minimal technological flourishes. Recorded in 15 days during the fall of 2019, the album has a more pared-down quality than Williams' previous, double-album release, The Ghosts of Highway 20. It's got what Williams has called "that real deep, drivin' sound", inspired by Howlin' Wolf and ZZ Top. There's also a bit of Neil Young and Crazy Horse and AC/DC, in some of the grungier moments.
Pretty sounds are scarce; the band churns and stomps, guitars keen and go discordant as fits the mood of the songs. When Mathis—who is superb throughout—picks up a fiddle on "Pray the Devil Back to Hell", it's not to add country-style embellishment but as an eerie counterpoint to Williams' confession of struggling with dark impulses, personified by he who urges, "Come to me / Let's play some more." On "Wakin' Up", a brutal account of sexual violence with some of Williams' frankest and most disturbing lyrics, Butch Norton's pugilistic drumming is like a string of punches to the face.
Mathis' guitar rages and squalls on "Man Without a Soul" as Williams damns, with anger and sorrow, "A man without shame / Without dignity and grace." The gospel-inspired "Big Rotator" and "Down Past the Bottom" (the latter another number likening a personal hell to a descent to the devil's realm—but a place even lower than that) are sludgy riff-rockers in the spirit of Williams' beloved ZZ Top.
Now, let's talk about the singing. Some longtime Williams fans miss how the now-67-year-old sounded when she was younger, with a cleaner tone and higher register; they complain that her vocal timbre has coarsened and that her diction has become mush-mouthed and mannered. One critic, reviewing a recent show, absurdly compared her current voice to Bob Dylan's rusty pipes. As someone who prefers singers who are rough-edged but expressive to those with conventionally "good" voices, I think Williams is singing better than ever. Although the blues has always been at the core of her musical identity, she's now fully a blues singer, and a rock 'n roller steeped in the blues.
"Bad News Blues" harkens back to her roots in country blues, which she performs with earned authority. On "Big Black Train", which employs the blues trope of the train as a metaphor for depression, she achieves a desperate, heartbreaking intimacy. But she really knocks me out when she rages, unprettily, on "Down Past the Bottom", one of the album's fiercest vocal performances.
Williams, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and raised in various places in the South, long has been fascinated by Pentecostalism and homegrown southern beliefs. Her "Get Right With God" was written from the perspective of a snake-handler who "would kiss the diamondback if I knew it would get me to heaven". She, however, is not a believer, and when she uses religious imagery, it's in the service of a secular, this-world vision.
The "Big Rotator" of the eponymous track is the deity, but Williams is more interested in John the Revelator, John of Patinos, the bearer of new truths and the author of the Book of Revelations, about whom
Blind Willie Johnson and Son House sang in the 1930s. Their versions of "John the Revelator" proposed deliverance from evil through faith in Christ. Williams' vision is all apocalypse, judgment but no redemption. "Liars are venerated, losers congratulated / Cheaters celebrated, thieves compensated / Vultures satiated, murderers exonerated / Guilty vindicated / Innocent incarcerated."
The album concludes with a prayer, not to a god but for help to get through the dark times, in the company of the titular "good souls" and "better angels" who "help me find strength / When I'm feeling hopeless." Even before COVID-19 struck, ending and upending so many lives, hope and consolation seemed in short supply. Better Souls Good Angels was written and recorded well before the pandemic. But the album, with its darkness tinged with glimmers of hope, its rage touched with tenderness, is very much one for our terrible time.
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