Lucinda Williams’ Good Souls Better Angels rocks all the really decent souls out of their Sleepy Hollow graves and lets them all dance one more time. Just so you know, Better Angels is a (sometimes) harsh follow-up to the quiet and spooky The Ghosts Of Highway 20.
Now, I may be wrong, but Lucinda somehow stumbled (like a dustbowl tumbleweed) into being an authentic American treasure. Her new album, Good Souls Better Angels, simply yowls “Don’t tread on me” at all the folks who “gave her gasoline” when she only “asked for water”.
In countless classic Americana Western films, very clean cowboys rescue some frontier damsels from evil desperados (or the odd renegade Indian), and sometimes, our John Wayne hero is bitten by a rattlesnake. Of course, the solution is simple (and, I believe, detailed in The Boy Scout Manual): Take a knife, cut into the wound, suck out the venom, and then spit the poison into the universe.
That’s what this album does.
‘You Can’t Rule Me’ smokes like the gunpowder at Bunker Hill or Memphis Minnie (she of ‘When The Levee Breaks’ fame) on a hot night. It’s a John Hancock and Henry David Thoreau sort of rock ‘n’ roll tune. The guitar punches at history, and Lucinda’s vocals manage to land on the dark side of the moon.
My friend, Kilda Defunt,says, “The tune personifies ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘Be Bop Lula’ in a drinking contest, and because of the booze, they both forget their melodies and sing something else that’s pretty cool”.
No criticism: Dig into these tense tunes and find “weird” but very melodic “scenes inside the goldmine.
The reality continues. ‘Bad News Blues’ sings a bluesy dancefloor tune that conjures a really decent stroll that defies “all the liars and hypocrites”. This is Lucinda’s ethos: She drives a simple series of notes into permanent ink of rock-ribbed defiant graffiti. The song swims in the same gene pool as ‘Changed The Locks’ from her self-titled album (and revisited with a vengeance on Live At The Fillmore!).
And then reality really continues: ‘Man Without A Soul” just says the obvious: Democracy wobbles like the first Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk. You know, Carly Simon once sang, “You’re so vain”, and we all have wondered about the subject of the song. But Lucinda sings, “You are a man without truth, a man of greed, a man of hate,” and let’s see: “shame”, “envy”, and “doubt” are also name-checked. Gee-whiz! This one has a MacDonald’s drive thru quick serve answer. And a wonderous wah-wah guitar rushes over the song like a pandemic. Gee-whiz, again.
The eyes in dust bowl photos glance into these songs.
Old silent screen films flicker in these melodies.
Simple graffiti punches melody into the skin of these tunes.
And then those Sleepy Hollow ghosts dance.
D. H. Lawrence observed, “As I say, it is perhaps easier to love America passionately, when you look at it through the wrong end of a telescope…than when you are right there. When you are actually in America, America hurts”.
And these songs “hurt”, but they do so with thorny beauty. ‘Big Black Train’ is slow motioned and darkly resolute, with an oddly comforting guitar. CCR’s John Fogerty’s tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Graveyard Train’, sings with the same swampy passion. Now, ‘Wakin’ Up’ is a (fairly) quick-paced heavy hammer of a song and is yet another example of that permanent ink of ribbed-rocked defiant graffiti. No “passionate kisses” here. Just hard pathos. This is domestic firefight abuse stuff. And the psychology is razor blade sharp. The song somehow clings to a tight roped melody, even though the dense aura echoes like a pretty great tune by The Stooges that smokes any oxygen out of any room.
Lucinda is a poet of the immense moment. Her songs float in the same turbulent waters as Richard Thompson’s ‘End Of The Rainbow’, Nick Drake’s ‘Parasite’, Mary Gauthier’s ‘I Ain’t Leavin’’, and (the great) Peter Hammill’s ‘Lost and Found’, which simply states, “In the morning light the stigmata don’t show”.
As my dear mother often said, “It’s the company you keep”.
And the dark currents continue. ‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell’ is a ghost ship of a song. Samuel Taylor Coleridge could (almost) be on board, possessing the sad wisdom that ‘Nobody can save you from yourself”. Heck, just don’t shoot the albatross! And a big wah-wah solo, thankfully, lights votive candle. ‘Shadows & Doubts’ speaks for itself with a ragged acoustic voice and added violin. This is Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night stuff.
Ah, but ‘When The Way Gets Dark’ is another votive candle (with a warm melody to boot!) and has a prayerful “don’t give up” chorus that vibrates in the dark grooves of Good Souls Better Angels. This one has the deep beauty of a Hannibal, Missouri Hick Finn cave. It’s the closest thing to the absolute charm of an earlier (and favorite) song like ‘Side Of The Road’.
Joseph Conrad, in Heart Of Darkness, says, “Approach cautiously”. Yeah, this album intersects the “crossroads” where entertainment becomes art. And then, well, the desire to be “the toppermost of the poppermost” sort of goes off the grid. ‘Bone Of Contention’, again, visits the razor sharp blade that is “walkin’ your two-headed dog” and spits that poison after a Hollywood big cinema snakebite, with a guitar solo that pounds contrition into rock ‘n’ roll purgatory. Ditto for the cover of Greg Garing’s ‘Down Past The Bottom’. I mean, this is a place “where the devil won’t go”. ‘Big Rotator’ slows the heartbeat and gets sort of biblical and prays to the patron saint of the wah-wah pedal.
Of course, the album walks off into the sunset of ‘Good Souls’. Sometimes a sombre slow dance tune (with a cheeseburger and fries) can move mountains. This is “Down where the spirit meets the bone” or perhaps where “car wheels on the gravel road”. This tune throbs with a thousand of those (before-mentioned) votive candles, candles which test faith, bleed faith, cut faith, pledge faith, sing faith, scorch vocal chords with faith, and, ultimately, when confronting a snakebite or two, just manages to spit out anger and then make a ramshackle Mississippi River raft of a rock ‘n’ roll record.
Artist’s website: https://www.lucindawilliams.com/
‘Big Black Train’ – official video: