Whether she intended to or not, Lucinda Williams helped invent our favorite genre 40(!) years ago. Her first few albums, including Happy Woman Blues, her self-titled initial record with Rough Trade, and Sweet Old World, set us up for 1998’s masterpiece, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (full disclosure – I named my dog “Jackson” after my favorite song on that album). In the half-dozen or so albums since then, Williams has kept her sound Americana-adjacent. Every record has been different, to be sure, but comfortably familiar – varying amounts of twang and tales of a Southern life lived, delivered in Williams’ sultry slur. Her latest release, Good Souls Better Angels, is not that. Angry, political, and urgent, it’s the work of a woman who’s realized she has more songs behind her than ahead, and she’s not going to hold back on her truth.
Williams’ past work has been more personal than topical, but a number of songs on Good Souls delve into current events. “You Can’t Rule Me” is the stomping piece of blues that leads off the record, and Williams takes on any and all who might stand in her way, regardless of their perceived authority – “You can’t take my money/And try to rule me too.” As with most of the album, the muscular work of her road band, Buick 6, backs up her venom with its own bluesy ferocity – Stuart Mathis has two solos on the lead track. “Man Without A Soul” is even more pointed in its criticism (of, one would guess, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). The tune is a little slower and more deliberate than others on the album, allowing Williams to drive her point home – “All the money in the world/Will never fill that hole/You’re a man bought and sold.” Here, Mathis backs it up with an absolute howl of a guitar solo.
Williams does pick her spots to get personal. “Big Black Train” tackles depression with the voice of someone who’s fought that battle, and the losses are beginning to pile up – “Last time it took me far away/I don’t wanna get on board.” The slow but relentless drive of the music reflects the inability to escape what’s coming: “I don’t wanna get on board that big black train/I don’t wanna disappear.” While most of the songs on Good Souls were co-written with Williams’ manager/producer/husband of 10 years, Tom Overby, “Wakin’ Up” is all Lucinda, and it feels like one of her classics – short phrases and sharp rhymes that always stab their way back to the title. Featuring a thick bassline and a jagged guitar bed, Williams sings about an abusive partner – “He pulled my hair/And then he kicks on me” – who always finds his way back in – “Next thing, I swear/He wants to kiss on me.” The narrator, though, is out of forgiveness: “I’m wakin’ up/It shook me up/I’m wakin’ up/It f@cked me up/But I’m waking up from a bad dream.”
With all of the devils, the soulless hucksters, and the bringers of apocalypse found on the record (and in the world), there’s scant space for the angels in the title, but Williams finds them in the end. “Good Souls” feels like West-era Lu – optimistic and wistful at the same time. Backed by clean electric guitar and brushed percussion, Williams, in her most tremulous voice, sings about the folks who keep her going – “Keep me with all the ones/Who have a hand at my back/When I’ve strayed from my path” – her own better angels.
Good Souls Better Angels was produced by Tom Overby, Ray Kennedy and Lucinda Williams, engineered and mixed by Kennedy and mastered by Brian Lucey. Additonal musicians include Stuart Mathis (guitars and violin), David Sutton (bass), Butch Norton (drums and percussion) and Mark T. Jordan (organ).
Go here to order Good Souls Better Angels: https://orcd.co/goodsoulsbetterangels
A hopeful list of tour dates is here: https://www.lucindawilliams.com/tour