Good Souls Better Angels
by Peter Grainger
Right from the get-go on “Good Souls Better Angels”, Lucinda Williams lets us know she’s mad as hell and she is not going to take it anymore, homing-in on the angst many of us are feeling quite acutely in 2020.
Williams’ latest batch of songs is as good a soundtrack to these times, as Dylan’s album “The Times They Are A-Changin” was in 1964. Williams has skirted around the edges of protest in her song-writing sporadically, but never in such a
prolonged, one-fingered “@#$%-you!” fashion.
Like Dylan, Neil Young, Steve Earle, and other Americana brew-masters, Williams always seems to siphon from one or more stylistic pools in her songs; you hear her basics, pulling from Blues, Country and Rock N’ Roll, often all in the
same song, along with smatterings of Gospel and Soul, that add just enough flavour to help keep her torn & frayed sound familiar yet fresh.
The first line of album opener “You Can’t Rule Me”, could have easily been overheard countless times at the hundreds of Black Lives Matter marches held in dozens of cities across America and other countries in 2020. It has become a year
of pestilence, protest and purulent politics:
“Yeah man, I got a right to talk about what I see, way too much is going wrong, it’s right in front of me…”
Chugging along with a tough Stonesian riff and adapted from a 1920s tune by the blues-belter Memphis Minnie, Williams immediately sounds displeased and defiant, angrily admitting she may have been beaten, cheated, tricked and defiled, but she
will not be ruled. It seems obvious Williams is nodding her head in the direction of Trump, but ”You Can’t Rule Me” could be about almost any man who’s misused her. Stuart Mathis pulls off one of the most compact yet potent electric guitar solos,
since the far-too-few days & nights when ace axe-player G.E. Smith was the musical director in Bob Dylan’s late-80s band. The solo is fast n’ furious and it fits.
The soft-shoe shuffle at the beginning of “Bad News Blues” belays the depth of distrust and indignation Williams feels for Trump. She soon drawls outs a stupefied question, as if she can’t quite believe what she is seeing around her, “Who’s gonna
believe liars and lunatics, fools and thieves, clowns and hypocrites…” She knows the answer: too many are being duped, and many more have their heads planted far too deeply in the proverbial sand, to ignore the truth, while others cheer on their
orange-faced champion with glee.
How can “Man Without A Soul” be about anyone but Trump? Of course you’ll never hear this at a Trump rally, but his adversaries could easily rouse the rabble if this Crazy Horse-like workout was blasted over the arena loudspeakers.
“You are 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…”
Williams spits out her contempt for Trump’s thievery and deceit, his lack of dignity and grace, but like the walls of Jericho, she is convinced his walls will come down. And with the way it is sung and played, you can’t help but believe her.
Williams has wisely written these protest songs to be both of-and-beyond their time; likewise many of the politically-charged diatribes on Neil Young’s “Living With War” are no doubt written about George W. Bush, yet could apply to many a flip-flopping,
constantly-electioneering gadfly; Ricki Lee Jones wrote her ear-wormed political anthem “Ugly Man” about Bush too, but it is open-ended enough to transcend its time. Ditto for much of “Good Souls Better Angels”, which is made all-the-better for a
carefully crafted timelessness.
A few cuts later, Williams strums a clatch of clunky chords and a sparse rasp in “Pray The Devil Back To Hell”; like opener, “You Can’t Rule Me”, it sounds like a hoary blues you might hear on an old Skip James or Howlin’ Wolf 78. Williams explores a
spacious dub-sounding atmosphere here, more akin to some of the expansive sounds she created on her two double discs, 2014’s “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” and 2016’s “The Ghosts Of Highway 20”, where she spread out with grand guitar colourists
Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (who has made similar magic with Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Dave Alvin).
On “Good Souls Better Angels”, Williams has a thinner, tauter, tighter band on offer, producing punch-to-the-gut power throughout. It is almost a classic three-piece rock sound, like Cream or ZZ Top in places, even though the singer/songwriter provides
modest rhythm guitar on most tracks; the mix seems to push Mathis’ lead guitar and the bass of David Sutton and drums of Butch Norton up high enough to obscure much of what Williams plays. Perhaps she is just wanting to be more generous to her co-conspirators,
or she feels humbled by their towering instrumental talents?
What follows in songs like “Shadows & Doubts”, “When The Way Gets Dark”, “Bone of Contention”, “Down Past The Bottom” can all seem to be conjured in a cauldron of contemporary caricatures, headlines and memes, with Trump seemingly intruding on all of them,
especially “Bone”, where she chides: “Filthy sin is in your blood, abomination of all that’s good, I saw you walkin’ your two-headed dog, pretending to worship God, mathematics and politics, three-sixes and deadly tricks…”
For “Big Rotator”, Williams borrows heavily from “John The Revelator”, the 1930 gospel-blues call-and-response tune by Blind Willie Johnson, for an echo-filled dub-fest that would make Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry beam with pride. Again, you can’t help but think of
Trump: “War is legislated, peace evaluated, bombs detonated, freedom negotiated, art confiscated, stories fabricated, history manipulated, truth eradicated…” But because history repeats, sadly songs like this will always be sung.
And while there is still hope in the world, songs like title track and CD closer “Good Souls”, will also be sung. It comes across as much as a plea than a prayer, but the message is clear: Williams hopes like her, that you will draw strength from loved ones,
from the good souls who have your back in troubled times, for the better angels guiding you home. “Good Souls Better Angels” will help you get there.