It’s a cliché that a Southern musician will turn to God at some point, and the almighty does make an appearance toward the end of Lucinda Williams’ latest, Good Souls Better Angels. But if she’s preaching to a congregation on this gritty, raucous 12-song set of blues-heavy rock ’n’ roll, it’s a flushed crowd of barroom philosophers, the din of their voices competing with the rough-hewn wail of her electric guitar. Williams’ typical cast of melancholy characters—tortured artists, lonely travelers—are here, too. But although she pauses to sing them a soothing lullaby on “When The Way Gets Dark,” this time around, she’s the one on a journey.
That journey is a descent into hell, pursued by the devils that have tormented blues musicians since Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads. Williams’ monsters are human, but just as evil, and the driving force behind Good Souls Better Angels is fiery rage at the morally bankrupt rulers of our 21st-century world. At first, it seems as if Williams is putting her foot down with a no-good lover on album opener “You Can’t Rule Me,” the prickly lyrics adding a righteous edge to its electric blues stomp. But as the Dylan-esque rhyming couplets of “Bad News Blues” give way to the weary “Man Without A Soul,” it becomes clear that the man who’s giving Williams so much grief is a suit-wearing sociopath in a skyscraper somewhere, not the man in her bed.
That’s not to say there’s nothing personal about the lyrics on this record. It can be difficult to just keep existing when you’re constantly weighed down by grief and fear, and there’s a raw, deeply felt vein of lived experience in Williams’ voice when she sings, “Didn’t know if I was ever coming back / I don’t want to get on board” the “Big Black Train” of depression. That gut-punch of a song kicks off the descent portion of the album, as Williams exorcises the demons of her past over sinuous guitar and sinister, almost Satanic strings on “Wakin’ Up” and “Pray The Devil.” The metallic post-punk sounds of the former are an album highlight, and return to similarly invigorating effect in the shouted chorus of “Bone Of Contention,” where Williams spits venom at the enemies of all that’s good and righteous in this world.
If there’s a downside to the electricity in Williams’ veins on Good Souls Better Angels, it’s that the gentler material doesn’t have quite the same impact. That’s especially true for the ostensible centerpiece of the album, six-minute ballad “Shadows And Doubts,” which isn’t as memorable as character-based classics like “Ventura” or “Lake Charles.” Perhaps its protagonist just isn’t as sympathetic: Williams says the song was inspired by Ryan Adams, and is told from his point of view. Regardless, the regretful fuckup of “Down Past The Bottom” is more compelling, and not just because their dark night of the soul is backed by throaty growls, cymbal clashes, and chugging hard-rock guitar.
In the end, Williams finds the strength to pull herself out of the despair “down past the bottom, where the devil won’t go,” with the help of the Good Souls Better Angels of the title. Perhaps thanks to the natural way its hypnotic shuffle complements the Delta blues rhythms heard elsewhere on the album, closer “Good Souls” does resonate with both heartache and gratitude, as Williams acknowledges “all of those who help me find strength / when I’m feeling hopeless / who guide me along / and help me stay strong and fearless.” Even if you’re not a churchgoing type, perhaps there’s still salvation to be found in each other.