Williams couldn’t have known she would be soundtracking an age of masks and protests, but she couldn’t have matched the zeitgeist much better with her focused rage.
As the world falls apart, let’s fall apart angry. It might not be the healthiest way to go, but it satisfies. At least for a time. In writing Good Souls Better Angels and recording it quickly last fall, Lucinda Williams couldn’t have known she would be soundtracking an age of masks and protests and improvised toilet paper, but she couldn’t have matched the zeitgeist much better with her focused rage. For the first 11 tracks, she tears into everything, backed by a band ready to chase down her enemies. Then she gives us a twist at the end, one that’s earned and needed in this time. A burst of smart catharsis, the album utilizes particular aspects of Williams’ art that have always been there, coalescing into one of the most charged and rewarding albums of her career.
It’s the punk side that comes out. Williams has rarely been exactly country or exactly rock or pop. Her genre-blending has always been part of the appeal, part of the distinctive nature of her work. With Good Souls she moves further from country and more into blues and rock, but it’s not just the other elements of alt-country coming to the fore. Williams, it seems, could always have fronted a punk band. Drawl aside, put her in the DC hardcore scene and it works. This record gets noisy; let her front a Sonic Youth-successor. Kim Gordon is busy these days, but the collaboration would pay off.
Yet, Good Souls resists the limitations of topical historicity. Williams sounds mad at everything, but even when she gets political, it’s not so specific has to have fleeting relevance. “Man Without a Soul” has an obvious referent in politics, but it’s not only applicable to our current president. Instead, it’s a track set in an unjust society (and which of them aren’t?) that can turn hurt and bitterness into a hope for just as the end of a long arc.
Her other songs tackle demanding personal crises. “Big Black Train” looks at the challenges of depression, acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding that ride and the destruction that comes with it. The train metaphor plays into popular imagery that suggests death, adding a full morbidity to her anxiety about falling prey to that particular condition. The following track, “Wakin’ Up” provides the album’s most stunning moment. Pushing through dirty guitars, Williams narrates a (putative) escape from domestic violence, waking up to abuse around her, told in jarring terms. The puts every part – whether the opening bass riff, stray guitar lines or echo-y production – into a proper place to create a musical progression that matches the singer’s brutal epiphany. That attention to detail shows up on every track; the disc maintains a precise recklessness.
And yet – for all the talk of punk surrounding the release – it’s not just that it’s a loud and angry record. “Shadows & Doubts” sounds more traditionally like a Williams track (whatever that might mean), but it’s especially effective here because it slows the pace of the album while retaining the relentlessness of the attack. Williams sings, “There’s so many ways/ To crush you,” with a calm assurance that collects the energy of the album’s first half before unleashing it throughout the second. Good Souls pulls together years of music-making, turning consistent collaboration with her co-writing husband Tom Overby and her excellent band into a clear statement.
The album maintains a singular attitude throughout, but Williams wisely mixes tones and tempos so that the disc stays centered without staying stuck. Then for the last song, she takes a deep breath and seeks light on “Good Souls.” She asks, simply, “Keep me with all of those who help me,” looking for the good souls and better angels. There’s no end to the horrors of life. There’s no imminent hope. There is, however, community, those other people that help hold us together. Williams doesn’t offer an easy way out of the darkness of the album, but she doesn’t succumb to it either. She rages, not entirely optimistically, but in the knowledge and strength of the people that she can lean on. Williams might or might not see a way out, but she knows a way forward.