Lucinda Williams comes from a long line of rebels with passionate causes. Her family were liberals, feminists, pacifists, integrationists, union organisers, civil rights protestors willing to stand up in the face of inequality and injustice. As a teenager she herself was thrown out of high school for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag, as part of her opposition to the Vietnam war.
To be a punk is to have a spirit of rebellion – being willing to stand apart and defy the way that society wants us to live. Musically the movement was about simplicity, directness, anger: three chords and the screaming truth. On this new album Good Souls Better Angels Lucinda Williams lets her punk rock spirit loose with staggeringly brilliant results.
“This is the first album I’ve stepped back and said ‘You know what I’m going to do this, fuck it,” Lucinda said in her recent Aquarium Drunkard interview. She has admitted that in the past she wanted her music to be palatable, and her natural strength was in writing unrequited love songs. Now in her sixties, inspired by Trump, Pussy Riot and the Me Too movement, she has been brave enough to unleash her fury and frustration with the ways of the not so sweet old world.
Opening song ‘You Can’t Rule Me’ is a defiant feminist snarl, adapted from the original blues song by Memphis Minnie. Bone of Contention offers a similar rebel yell to the ones who have caused her pain, tried to control her and got in her way. She’s done with biting her tongue, she won’t shut up and sing anymore. If some fans don’t like it then you have to conclude that they are just part of the goddamn problem.
The new found bravery in her songwriting allows her to confront her past on Wakin’ Up. This shocking and brutal song deals with the domestic abuse she faced in a previous relationship. To relive such horrors is to attempt an exorcism of that pain and trauma, an acknowledgement of survival.
The blues has always informed Lucinda’s music, and her current band is much more steeped in that genre than the ‘altcountry’ of her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or West albums. Throughout Good Souls Better Angels they raise their game and the swampy, garage rock blues sound suits the darkness that informs all the songs. Bad News Blues takes a look around and finds no light anywhere. A world filled with ‘gluttony and greed’, ‘fools and thieves’, ‘liars and lunatics’ is enough to send any sane person to the edge of the abyss. On Big Rotator she describes how evil is ‘bleeding the world drop by drop.’ Like the best blueswomen before her she can only sing out her pain and Pray the Devil Back To Hell.
Lucinda’s father, Miller Williams, wrote a poem called ‘Of History and Hope’ for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1997. In it he dreamed of a world that was ‘just, compassionate, equal, able and free’ and said we ‘cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot’. America did not heed his warning. ‘Man Without A Soul’ is a direct response to the Trump presidency, a stunning rebuke to the hate and suffering that such men spread without conscience. Trump did not commission a poem for his inauguration – art, culture and intelligent thought are well beyond the realms of his comprehension. And yet despite the toll his presidency has had on her country, Lucinda will not give up or give in. How do you think this story ends? /It’s not a matter of time / it’s a matter of when. The walls he built will crumble. They have to. To think of any other future is impossible. Until then all artists (and any of us) can do is stand up and protest.
Living in such a world it’s hard not to let it destroy you. Big Black Train encapsulates that existential dread that we all feel coming for us at one time or another. Only a voice as bruised, as battered, as true as Lucinda’s could sing this song. Every moment aches with beautiful despair enough to bring you to your knees. Down Past the Bottom, written by Greg Garing and previously recorded by Wanda Jackson, also reaches the depths with nothing but regret and misery to be found. Musically the song is more like grunge in the way that she revels in such unflinching bleakness.
Shadows and Doubts is about a man with a soul who has lost his way and made some serious mistakes. Lucinda admitted in her interview with The Guardian that this song was inspired by Ryan Adams and the chaos he caused in his personal life. As a friend you can hear her compassion and her hope that he can fight his way out of the hell he created for himself. It’s a sorrowful song, but, despite the way some have tried to spin this, in no way does it suggest that she supports his actions, or thinks he’s been a victim of cancel culture. Nor does it ask for his public rehabilitation. This song simply explores how addicts destroy their lives and leave carnage in their wake, acknowledging that some of us need more help than others to defeat our demons.
The two most redemptive songs on the album remind us of that simple truth. When The Way Gets Dark offers solace and light. Don’t give up / you have a reason to carry on / don’t give up / take my hand / you’re never alone. Everybody hurts sometimes, we have to hold on and help each other. The album finishes with Good Souls – a plea and a prayer to never falter from the path of goodness. To walk on the side of the better angels is what we all must strive to do everyday, no matter how hard that might be.
When asked for the definition of poetry Miller Williams said, ‘Poetry is the use of language to communicate more than the words seem to say, in a way that involves the reader or listener so that when the words have been read or heard the reader or listener feels like a co-creator.’ Over the course of her career Lucinda has brought that same poetic, inclusive spirit to her songwriting. Now she reflects the state of the world back to us, and we are right there, writing every word with her. On Good Souls Better Angels together we rage against the machine and rage, rage against the dying of the light.