By Jeff Burger
When Lucinda Williams began her career four decades ago with a pair of albums on the Smithsonian Folkways label, it didn’t take long to figure out that she was a major talent. Still, few could have guessed back then just how adventurous or revelatory her music would become. To fully appreciate how far she could travel, we had to wait for such later albums as 1998’s effusive and lyrically rich Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which helped to deliver her to a wider audience.
The new Good Souls Better Angels, which Williams recorded over 15 days in the fall of 2019, is another landmark, though it might not do much to further expand her fan base. Largely cowritten by Williams and her husband Tom Overby, it’s a challenging album that makes few if any concessions to achieve commercial success. And don’t look to this record for Williams to deliver any “Passionate Kisses” (the title of a popular early number); her mood here is much more often angry and foreboding than romantic.
But don’t let that scare you away. Williams’s music remains as compelling as ever, and so does her idiosyncratic vocal work. As Sam Stephenson observes in his extensive liner notes, she can sound simultaneously “fragile and confident, delicate and bracing, audacious and subtly unhinged, sexy and haunting.”
Many of the lyrics on Good Souls Better Angels seem to comment on current events; but the verse is sufficiently generalized to keep it relevant beyond the current era. “You Can’t Rule Me,” the blues rock entry that opens the program, starts with lines that set the tone for much of what follows on the record: “Yeah man, I got a right to talk about what I see,” Williams begins, “Way too much is going wrong, it’s right in front of me.”
Williams growls out those words, and she’s still growling on the second number, “Bad News Blues,” which anyone in today’s world should be able to relate to: “Bad news on my TV screen, bad news in the magazines…No matter where I go, I can’t get away from it.” Then comes “Man Without a Soul,” a composition that seems to address a certain president: “You’re a man without truth, a man of greed, a man of hate / A man of envy and doubt, you’re a man without a soul…You hide behind your wall of lies, but it’s coming down.”
The devil shows up in several songs, and there’s enough darkness here to make you want to reach for a flashlight. In “Shadows & Doubts,” Williams proclaims that “these are the dark new days” while “Man Without a Soul” finds her observing that “there’s a darkness all around you” and “Pay the Devil Back to Hell” describes a world “inside the dark.” There’s also a song that’s titled “When the Way Gets Dark.”
Several of the tracks are more personal than political. “Big Black Train” seems to be about depression, for example, while the protagonist of “Wakin’ Up” describes a physically abusive partner in graphic detail.
Some of these numbers are a bit hard to listen to but others are beautiful and even uplifting. The aforementioned “When the Way Gets Dark,” for example, is comforting in a way that recalls Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And “Big Black Train” which boasts one of Williams’s most touching vocals, boasts a melody that manages to be both mournful and sweet.
She doesn’t make a lot of albums—this is only Williams’s 14th studio outing in 40 years—but when she does, she sings from the heart and produces important results. Good Souls Better Angels is no exception.
Mark Olson & Ingunn Ringvold, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. The arrival of a new album from Mark Olson—and, in recent years, from him and his wife, Norwegian native Ingunn Ringvold—is always cause for celebration in my house. Olson cofounded the Jayhawks and provided many of their most memorable songs, vocals, and guitar parts before moving on to form the equally wonderful Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers with Victoria Williams. Ringvold—who only made the cover photo on 2017’s Spokeswoman of the Bright Sunbut gets equal billing with Olson here—provides moody string arrangements and beautiful harmony vocals and plays Mellotron, dulcimer, and other instruments.
The duo’s impressionistic lyrics are often as indecipherable as they are fascinating, at least until Olson explains them. (Talking about “Children of the Street Car,” for example, he says he intended the line “fog minus time” to mean “current day San Francisco minus time equals the heyday of experimental folk rock.”) But even when the lyrics seem cryptic, this melodic, richly textured pop/folk album remains accessible; and frequently it is nothing short of magical. Though newly recorded, it sounds as if it could have been a product of the era that produced outfits like the Incredible String Band, Pearls Before Swine, and Jefferson Airplane. That’s good news as far as I’m concerned.
Various Artists, Songs of Hard Times: Up, Over & Through. This 20-track collection from the huge archives of American folk ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax will remind you that we’re not exactly the first generations to face big challenges. You’ll likely recognize the names of a few of the performers, such as Delta blues singer Skip James and folk singer and union activist Aunt Molly Jackson, but most of the acts are pretty obscure.
Not surprisingly, given that the collection covers nearly two dozen artists and spans almost half a century (1936–1982), the music—which includes six previously unreleased tracks—is impossible to categorize. The songs, which embrace, blues, folk, country, gospel, and more, have roots in Trinidad, Africa, Italy, Spain, Latin America, and the American South. Pretty much the only thing they all have in common is excellence. (Note: The album is exclusively available via digital download from Bandcamp.)
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.