Lucinda Williams has a remarkable, ragged, resilient singing voice, that is the perfect instrument for her honest, world-weary songs. I’m often reminded when I hear her singing that it was to Williams that Elvis Costello turned to in 2004 to share vocals for his song “There’s A Story In Your Voice.” He was right about that. That same year, Flogging Molly turned to her for the female voice for their song “Factory Girls,” and it’s no surprise how often other songwriters like Steve Earle and Buddy Miller have turned to her, to include that voice on a recording of their songs. But thankfully, Williams is not just waiting around to sing other people’s songs. In 2016 she released a solid double album of her own songs, The Ghosts of Highway 20, and two years prior to that delivered an other double album’s worth of great songs, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
By now, it’s not really news that Lucinda Williams wears her feelings on her sleeves in her songs, after all this is the woman who shouts down an old lover in “Joy” saying, “you took my joy, I want it back” in no uncertain terms. It was that emotional transparency and courage that marked her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road as an Americana classic, giving her her first commercial and critical breakthrough, and winning her the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
So it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Williams’ music that in her new collection of songs, Good Souls Better Angels, she’s taken a good look around at what she sees in 2020 and, to put it mildly, she’s pretty pissed. Everywhere she turns there’s “Bad News Blues,” enough to drive a sane person to depression (“Big Black Train” and “Down Past the Bottom”). Things are so bad, some are comparing the world’s woes to some dystopian apocalyptic future, which has Williams revisiting the blues classic “John The Revelator,” and putting her own spin on it in “Big Rotator.”
In the meantime, in these very mean times, Williams has found someone to blame, it’s that “Man Without a Soul,” the one she says is “a man without truth/a man of greed, a man of hate/a man of envy and doubt… You’re a man without shame/without dignity and grace/no way to save face.” It’s likely the one she describes in “Bad News Blues” when she asks “who’s gonna believe liars and lunatics?/Fools and thieves and clowns and hypocrites/Gluttony and greed, and that ain’t the worst of it.” But confronted with evil, Williams is prepared to “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and she’s not afraid to step up as she does when she sees a “Bone of Contention.”
Given Lucinda Williams’ strong songs, and that voice, she’s already got a winning combination, but the hidden strength in Williams recordings in the last decade, is her choice of side musicians, especially guitarists. Here on “Good Souls,” Williams relies on her live band, who also were on board in 2017 when she went back into the studio to re-record all of the songs of her 1992 album, to which she added a “this” to the title, now “This Sweet Old World.” The trio of players that have been backing up Williams on the road clearly have locked into how to bring just the right energy to her music; bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton lock into the intricacies of her natural rhythms, rocking the tempo when it’s called for, laying back with subtlety on the more tender tracks, but without a doubt it’s guitarist Stuart Mathis (formerly with Wallflowers, Chris Issak) who steps up throughout these 12 new tracks.
Mathis steps up for two of the hard-hitting rockers late in the album, “Bone of Contention” and “Down Past the Bottom,” and then adds the same bluesy bluster to “Big Rotator” that Son House but into that original “John the Revelator.” He shows his versatility in the buzz saw cries of anger as Williams channels a woman is “Wakin’ Up” to the bad dream of an abusive relationship, and when he brings a soulful swing to the bluesy stomp of “Bad News Blues” and soaring slide to “Man Without a Soul.”
So we get it, Williams and her band drive home with sensational songs the dire straits of what she calls the “new dark days, that much is true/there are so many ways to crush you,” but she’s too smart a woman, too well-rounded a soul to only offer complaints and rage, as honest and genuine as they may be. Williams responds first with defiance in “You Can’t Rule Me,” a refusal to be overcome by the negativity of the situation, and then “When The Way Gets Dark,” she offers solidarity: “Don’t give up/You have a reason/to carry on/Don’t give up/take my hand/you’re never alone.” Then in the closing rock ballad, the 7 minute last dance of the night that gives the album its name, “Good Souls,” she prays, “keep me with all those/who help me find strength/when I’m feeling hopeless/who guide me along/and help me stay strong and fearless/keep me with all the ones/who have a hand at my back/when I’ve strayed from the path/who help me get home.”
We all need a friend like that, one who screams with us when the world is unjust and makes no sense, and who holds us close when we are longing for homecoming. Thankfully, Williams understands our need to give voice to all the feelings, all the rage, all the joy, and she writes the songs that gives that voice a home of its own. On “Good Souls Better Angels,” Lucinda Williams delivers another collection of great songs perfectly attuned to this journey we are on together.
Key Tracks: “Man Without a Soul” / “Bone of Contention” / “Bad News Blues”
Artists With Similar Fire: Steve Earle / Patty Griffin / Shawn Colvin
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb