- 24 Apr 20
Shadows and Light
As far as I - and I’m not on my own here either - am concerned, Lucinda Williams is a great artist. Across a near-peerless series of albums – you can name your own favourites, but I’ll plump for Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, World Without Tears, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, and 2017’s re-recording of 1992’s Sweet Old World, This Sweet Old World – she has deservedly come to be cherished. Her voice is as rough as worn leather one minute, then tender as a mother’s hug the next, and her song writing ranges from the beauty of ‘Lonely Girls’ to the arse-kicking of ‘Real Life Bleeding Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings’.
Williams has a long history with the blues too, having recorded Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie songs for her 1979 debut Ramblin’, and for the most part on Good Souls Better Angels, she’s back howling at the crossroads. There’s no two ways about it, there are songs on this album that make for hard going, but, then again, Williams is tackling some hard subjects.
How could a song like ‘Wakin’ Up’ which deals with domestic abuse be anything but harrowing? It’s not intended to be a comfortable listen, and it isn’t, as Williams’ vocal gets more and more intense as the track progresses, broken only by Stuart Mathis somehow managing to put violent horror through his guitar.
You couldn’t address the subject of ‘Man Without A Soul’ – and we all know the ‘man’ she’s aiming at – with a sweet ballad. “You are a man without truth, a man of greed, a man of hate. A man of envy, a man of doubt. You’re the man without a soul.” The time for punch pulling has passed, but at least the song’s ending offers some modicum of consolation with, “it’s just a matter of when, ‘cause it’s coming down.” Let us hope so.
‘Bad News Blues’ sums it all up. Basically, grim tidings are coming at us from every angle, and we’re all “knee deep in it”, surrounded as we are by “liars and lunatics, fools and thieves.” The lolloping gait of the tune owes a slight debt to Dylan when he heads towards something like ‘Cold Irons Bound’, which is hardly a nursery rhyme either.
Blues tropes are everywhere, not just in the exemplary playing of the band. John the Revelator shows up in “Big Rotator’, Williams is gonna ‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell’ as she heads “down past the bottom where evil won’t go.”
When a glint of hope breaks through the despair, roses bloom in this briar patch. The songs may deal with depression and the ills of social media, respectively, but when Williams’ voice cracks and trembles during ‘Big Black Train’ or the gentle pace of ‘Shadows & Doubts’, she could break a tyrant’s heart. The message of perseverance in ‘When The Way Gets Dark’ is filled with warmth, the tremolo in both voice and guitar becoming almost hymnal, but Williams saves the best until last with the closing seven minutes of ‘Good Souls’. It’s another plea to keep on keeping’ on, and the brushed drums and walking bass are gossamer-light behind Mathis’ country/soul picking, which carries Williams as she implores the angels and good folk to give her the strength to stay strong. You’d have to be pretty cold inside not to feel something.
It would appear that this was a record Williams had to make, and, as I’ve said, it’s a long way from easy going, but when it catches you, you’re reminded of what makes her so special in the first place.