Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20/Cooking Vinyl)
Lucinda Williams angry? Pah! She left angry behind two or three outrages ago. She’s now at chilled-blooded fury: at an appalling human leading the country, a political system built on self-interest, a wider society sucked into selfishness and indifference.
Among the sharp slashes of guitar and hard-hit toms of Big Rotator, her update of a gospel favourite (“God is a big rotator/Spinning the world like a top/And John is a revelator/Way up on mountain top”) Williams lays out the standing objections like a perverted Sears catalogue order.
“Liars are venerated Losers, congratulated Cheaters, celebrated Please compensate it Vultures satiated Murders, exonerated Guilty, vindicated Innocent, incarcerated”
In case there’s any doubt about her place in this, “I don’t want to get on board,” Williams says in the long deep sigh that is Big Black Train, one of the few moments of pause and quiet in an album whose engine’s fire is stoked like a puffing locomotive primed for the big climb.
The fuel for this engine is blues. Beefy and plain-speaking in You Can’t Rule Me, which rolls into town with attitude; brutish, darkly sexy swing in Bones Of Contention and the thrillingly dangerous Down Past The Bottom; kohl-eyed, dirty floored menacing stuff (ala early Bad Seeds attempts at the blues) in Wakin’ Up; simple 12-bar chugging in Bad News Blues; and simmering warped gospel in Man Without A Soul which oddly enough puts me in mind a little bit of The Stooges even as it enunciates the problems with the actual stooge whose name isn’t mentioned but whose orange toxicity is clear.
You can see traces of Williams’ other musical interests in the country rock musing of Shadows And Doubts, which brings an air of – and guitar sound of – clear, dark open skies, and the way When The Way Gets Dark brings you in for the last dance of the night and leans on you with ease, the way her best semi-optimistic ballads always do.
In fact, that song is the real comfort point of Good Souls Better Angels, if only for letting you think you’re not without a friend. Which you need as the next song is Bone Of Contention and there’s no friends here: “you’re not my kin, you’re not my sister/You’re not my fan, you’re not my master/I’m not your slave, evil bastard/Go back to your grave.”
Still, Williams hasn’t given in to the worst of those around us or given up on the best of us. The album closes with Good Souls, a song of faith (in our better angels) and need (for support and kindling of trust), a long, hypnotic meditation asking some or other god to “Keep me with all the ones/Who have a hand at my back/When I’ve strayed from the path/Who help me get home”.
She sings it with worn down voice, putting a cry in its subtext, over a dusty guitar, bass and drums which work as background, a band in the corner of a long bar populated by a couple of day drinkers, until four or five minutes you grasp that in fact they are giving Williams – and, by now, you – the shoulder to lean on, the hand to hold, the direction home.
“Keep me with the good souls/Yeah, keep me, keep me.”
A version of this review was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald