Good Souls Better Angels

Lucinda Williams

Highway 20 / Thirty Tigers, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/16/2020

Lucinda Williams first appeared on my musical radar in the early ’90s thanks to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of her song “Passionate Kisses,” a powerful brew of jangly melody, steely resolve and writerly craft that felt a little like Joni Mitchell fronting the Byrds. Soon after that, Williams’ superb 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road firmly established her, in my mind and many others, as a top-tier songwriting talent whose piercing lyrics were amplified by the naked vulnerability of her voice.

Time has only accentuated the rough edges of Williams’ instrument, and her naturalistic approach to performance only amplifies the authenticity and impact of her painstakingly constructed songs. The tremendous series of albums she’s issued since Car Wheels has by now raised her to icon status within the musical community.  

On Good Souls Better Angels Williams takes a deep dive into the darkest corners of the American soul, using her elemental approach to examine the eternal struggle between good and evil that takes place equally in the streets and inside every person. Once regarded as an heir to the Patsy Cline school of strong-woman country-folk songwriters, over the years Williams has proven herself a musical chameleon, adapting her music to her mood and the times. While today she’s generally considered an Americana artist, Good Souls mostly takes the form of apocalyptic blues-rock, with deep shadows bleeding into pitch blackness as overdriven guitars roar and howl, only to fall back again, waiting.

One of two covers here, opener “You Can’t Rule Me” sets the tone with a bruising declaration of independence that turns the Memphis Minnie original inside out and shakes it like an earthquake. Then “Bad News Blues” ambles out of the shadows full of greasy swagger, like a Memphis barfly deep in the night, laying down a merciless screed against the “Liars and lunatics / Fools and thieves / And clowns and hypocrites” among us.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If there was any doubt about the target of Williams’s volcanic fury, “Man Without A Soul” settles it. “You are a man without truth,” she snarls against a backdrop of simultaneously shimmery and crunchy electric guitars, “A man of greed, a man of hate / A man of envy and doubt / You’re a man without a soul / All the money in the world / Will never fill that hole.” Perhaps the most startling aspect is that despite the enveloping darkness of the world and this album, Williams remains at heart an optimist. “You hide behind your wall of lies / But it’s coming down / Yeah, it’s coming down,” she intones with ragged yet authoritative confidence.

The subject matter doesn’t get any lighter with “Big Black Train,” a mid-tempo lament decorated with slivery, echoey guitar that finds Williams contemplating her mortality (“I dont want to get on board / That big black train”). On its heels, “Wakin’ Up” goes dark as dark can be, its narrator waking up to the fact that she’s in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship and beginning to plot an escape. On the heavier songs—the primeval “Wakin’ Up”; the dark yet soaring “Pray The Devil Back To Hell”; the bludgeoning “Bone Of Contention”; and a downright apocalyptic cover of Greg Garing’s “Down Past The Bottom”—Williams is more Patti Smith than Patsy Cline, delivering her lines with a fury that’s both visceral and poetic.

Williams’ roots as the granddaughter of preachers on both sides comes to the fore on “Big Rotator” as she attacks the big questions about good, evil, life and death with typical ferocity and fearlessness; similar themes crop up in both “Pray The Devil Back To Hell” and “Down Past The Bottom.”

Gentler moments are interspersed among these more explosive tracks like little oases. Midway through, the steady-on “Shadows & Doubts” features somber lyrics in an airy arrangement, while the similarly gentle and luminous “When The Way Gets Dark” offers the modest reassurance that “It’s gonna be alright / You’re gonna be okay.” And then closer “Good Souls” comes in feeling like a lullaby to self, a calming mid-tempo meditation about accepting your lack of control and locating sources of comfort.

In Sam Stephenson’s illuminating liner notes he describes William’s voice as simultaneously “fragile and confident, delicate and bracing, audacious and subtly unhinged, sexy and haunting.” It, and this album, are indisputably all of these things. Good Souls Better Angels is miles from an easy listen; it’s dire and anguished and only grasps slender filaments of hope during a handful of interludes. But that ongoing struggle between darkness and light, and the ferociously original and articulate voice Williams brings to it, are what make this album a great piece of art.

Rating: A-

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