Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels review – The tonic the world needs
Good Souls Better Angels
Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
“Because of all this crap that’s going on, it’s on the top of everybody’s minds – it’s all anybody talks about. Basically, the world’s falling apart – it’s like the apocalypse.” Lucinda Williams is actually talking about the world before Covid-19. Her press release was written weeks ago, back in the good old days when taking aim at the patriarchy was a reasonable priority along with dumping Donald Trump. And they haven’t gone away. But our new world rotates on a different axis. The context for everything has changed.
And yet Good Souls Better Angels, the 67-year-old’s 14th album since the 67-year-old’s debut in 1979 and the latest in a late-career purple patch, is a restoring curative for the numbing fear infecting our world. She achieves this by channelling anger, unease and empathy into a bristling set of riff-driven blues-rock tempered by tenderness.
Writer Bill Buford, in a 2000 New Yorker profile, was on the case when he noted the unforgiving rawness of her songs. He also pointed out that the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of country blues, “served Williams as a highly personal emotional reference library; something she kept coming back to in her music for images, for metaphors or sometimes for its famous 12-bar arrangements and its flattened blues notes”.
Certainly the blues has figured large in her singular work but so has country and places in between. She has also strutted a rockist persona with some swagger, but of late, supported by her second skin of Buick 6 – her wonderfully expressive backing band of Butch Norton (drums), David Sutton (bass) and Stuart Mathis (guitar) – she has returned to the embrace of the blues and to mining a life rich in southern gothic. Good Souls Better Angels sees her step outside that world to explore more political concerns, including domestic violence and depression. She has also reunited with Ray Kennedy, the man responsible for her 1998 breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. He co-produces the album with Williams’s husband and co-writer, Tom Overby.
The result is 12 tracks that punch with a dark, almost biblical vengeance but also, importantly, balance vitriol with solace, hellfire with a hand in need. The naked anger in the likes of Bone of Contention, Wakin’ Up, You Can’t Rule Me and Man Without a Soul contrasts with the vulnerability and solidarity of When the Way Gets Dark and the closing Good Souls, an invocation redolent of Lou Reed’s classic Coney Island Baby. And there is so much more. Her voice, her phrasing, her timing are her own. This is a singer in tune with her mission and a band in tune with her.