Lucinda Williams’ latest release, Good Souls Better Angels, pulls no punches. The album is full of righteous and clear-eyed anger and frustration at the world of today nestled in-between empathetic songs that encourage the listener to stick it out alongside Williams. Good Souls Better Angels is indisputably a product of its time, and not necessarily expressing anything we haven’t heard from several other artists in their post-2016 albums. However, Williams’ age and experience give her album something more; the voice of someone who has lived through a lot and knows there can be a way out.
The first three tracks make the themes of this album perfectly clear. “You Can’t Rule Me” puts on display Williams’ defiance and confidence in her values. With her weathered voice brimming with controlled anger, she makes clear that she knows her worth and that she can’t be bought and sold. Additionally, as if to preemptively shut down anyone who may have an issue with the rest of the album, she sings that “I got a right to talk about what I see.”
“Bad News Blues” is one of the most instantly relatable songs on the album, as Williams sings about how bad news is “on my TV screen…on the magazines,” going on to list any conceivable surface or place including newspapers, streets, cars, under her feet, and at the bar. The repetition in these lyrics only verges on exaggeration, but primarily manages to evoke the head-spinning anxiety that the constant presence of terrible news and bad omens can produce in a person.
One of the most compelling tracks on the album is “Man Without a Soul,” which Williams hasn’t been shy about connecting to the American President. What’s most interesting about her approach here is that, while the lyrics are cathartic and eviscerating (“all the money in the world will never fill that hole, you’re a man bought and sold”), the instrumentation is relatively mellow and even sympathetic. This, however, perfectly conveys Williams’ message through the song. Rather than being angry at this person, as if to ask, “how are you so thoughtless and cruel?” Williams’ music isn’t mad, because she knows the fact that the man is soulless and far beyond redemption or personal change. There’s nothing left but to tell him that this is the way it is and that his fate is sealed.
Later in the album, Williams creates another bolt of lightning with “Big Rotator.” In the same way she uses repetition in “Bad News Blues” to illustrate the proliferation of miserable news, she uses a repetitive structure here (“history, manipulated/ truth, eradicated”) to underline shifting and degrading paradigms.
However, this album isn’t just fueled by anger. The dynamic experience of the album comes from the various tracks placed throughout that dig into the exhausting consequences of the “bad news blues.” “Big Black Train” uses the titular locomotive as a metaphor for depression. Williams can hear it coming, and she’s been on it before when she didn’t know if she’d ever get off. Anyone who has survived a ride on the “big black train” understands the fear of hearing the train approaching from a distance, particularly when the world can make it so easy to climb aboard.
“Shadows and Doubts” and “When the Way Gets Dark” are side-by-side, and both convey a weary empathy. In the former song, Williams sings, “these are the dark, blue days/that much is true/and there’s so many ways to crush you,” with an understanding voice. The prior “Big Black Train,” in fact, helps us further believe that Williams knows what she’s talking about. “When the Way Gets Dark” ponders how you may react when life gets tough and you feel defeated. In both instances, Williams encourages her audience to keep up the fight and stick it out through the dark times because she has made it through before, proving it’s possible.
The album closes with “Good Souls,” which ends the hour-long album with a vulnerable ballad. The placement of this song is perfect, as Williams sings that she wants to stay with “all of those/who help me find strength/ when I’m feeling weak.” What we come to realize by the end of Good Souls Better Angels is that Williams is acting like one of those good souls throughout this entire album. Despite its sometimes excessive length, Good Souls Better Angels has a handful of undeniably strong and current songs that benefit from Lucinda Williams’ grounded Americana-rock performance style.