Lucinda Williams, “Good Souls Better Angels”

Lucinda Williams
Good Souls Better Angels
HIGHWAY 20 / THIRTY TIGERS
7/10

The “lady sings the blues” tag goes back to a time before Billie Holiday, and has been used to describe any woman with grit, tears, and traditional chord structures. Leave it to Lucinda Williams, then, to not only turn the tired phrase on its head, but refresh it, mightily, with a lacerating topical politicism to match her usual dry wit when it comes to personal hurt.

Recorded in the studio with one of her finest producers (Ray Kennedy who handled her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) and her effortlessly intuitive road band (guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, drummer Butch Norton), Good Souls Better Angels is one of Williams’ most live-wire works. She’s touched on the blues in the past (1980’s Happy Woman Blues), but this new album is GarageBand raw in a fashion reminiscent of her grungiest, loudest live sets. The gritty overdrive of her band is an in-the-red sizzle that goes toe-to-toe with Williams’ vocals—truly at their crustiest—on tracks such as “Bone of Contention” and “Down Past the Bottom.”

Lest anyone think that roots rock doesn’t have heft or heavy metal thunder, listen to Good Souls Better Angels a few times. To go with that jolting electricity, Williams holds tight the reins of the photographic intimacy and metaphorical glee that is her hallmark—the up-close-and-personal character study, the minutely detailed scene reportage, the twists of semiotics—on brooding new tracks such as “Shadows & Doubts.” Sometimes, those same hallmarks miss the mark, as “Big Black Train” and “You Can’t Rule Me,” could’ve come from any Williams album in her long catalog.

For the sake of frank freshness and zeal, there is no underestimating Williams’ attack when she tears into the zeitgeist. So often, Williams’ wise and gutsy lyrics and torrid hard-luck tales seem sepia-toned. Not here. With a ferocity of a flying fist and an au courant ardor, Williams punches into “Big Rotator” and “Bad News Blues” as if she’s going for the fast KO. 

As for the already-famous “Man Without a Soul,” Williams’ version feels different from other artists’, as it cuts through the partisan please and peers into what would make men and women with the same flesh and blood as she cold to the cause of the many. Williams is never one for punching down, and she doesn’t flinch here, or during any hearty portion of this, her hardest album in a minute.

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