Lucinda Williams review, ‘Good Souls, Better Angels’: A doom-laden but defiant album
The American singer-songwriter has gone back to her bluesy roots for a record full of fire and brimstone
There are a thousand ways to describe Lucinda Williams’s singing voice – and there have surely been at least that many during the American singer-songwriter’s 40-year career – but “pretty” is not one of them. In the quieter moments of her new album, Good Souls, Better Angels, it sounds like the purring engine of a beat-up pickup truck. When she lets loose, it’s as deadly as a sawn-off shotgun.
Having recently completed the anniversary tour of perhaps her most celebrated album, 1998’s country-Americana breakthrough Car Wheels On a Gravel Drive, Williams has gone back to her bluesy roots for her 15th record. She took inspiration for its fire and brimstone imagery and political bent from Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan, to whom she has been doggedly compared to over the years. Demons, evil and the devil are abound in this album. “Basically, the world’s falling apart,” she said in the album’s press release, by way of explanation. But if that’s true, she’s going down fighting.
Statements of intent don’t come much more overt than album opener “Bad News Blues”. “Bad news hangin’ in the air, bad news layin’ on the ground,” sings Williams, her voice scooping and growling as her band rumbles beneath her. Things ramp up. “Who’s gonna believe/ Liars and lunatics/ Fools and thieves/ Clowns and hypocrites?”
If her ire is scattershot there, then the scathing “Man Without A Soul” targets just one man. She wrote the song with her husband, manager and co-producer Tom Overby, and worried at first that it was too harsh on Donald Trump. She went with it anyway. “You’re a man without shame/ Without dignity and grace/ No way to save face/ You’re a man without a soul.” The album was recorded live in a vintage-equipped Nashville studio, which only lends more sonic urgency to these diatribes.
On “Big Black Train” – a song about a looming, unstoppable depression – Williams’s voice is dusky and depleted. It’s defiant, though, on “Wakin’ Up”. Painting an unflinching portrait of domestic abuse, the song is intense, while guitarist Stuart Mathis’s solos are warped and scuzzy. “He pulled my hair/ And then he kicks on me/ Next thing, I swear/ He wants to kiss on me.” Then comes the kicker. “Yeah, after all this/ He wants to piss on me.” “That line, well, I’m sorry,” she said in a recent interview with American Songwriter, “but it happens.”
There are moments when it all starts to feel a little bit too doom-laden. But Williams saves not only the best, but the most hopeful, until last. On the lilting, lingering “Good Souls”, her voice is extraordinary. As if she has sung herself dry on the preceding tracks, sometimes no sound comes out – but she keeps going. “Keep me in the hands of saints/ With the better angels/ With the good souls,” she implores. “Keep me with all of those/ Who help me find strength/ When I’m feeling hopeless.” It is the much-needed silver lining on an impressive but relentless album.