Like I imagine is the case with a lot of people, my introduction to Lucinda Williams was the critical and commercial 1998 breakthrough that was Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. New offering from this year Good Souls Better Angels travels along similar lines of country-rock hodgepodge but, I think, is more victoriously self-indulgent — tending no artistic dilution and offering no apologies for strutting in emphatic honkytonk swagger.
Opening track “You Can’t Rule Me,” right away, while I think benefitting from digital mixing with nice thumping bass from Davis Sutton, molds itself obediently to the classic rock format of a guitar solo following a couple of verses and choruses, but doesn’t disappoint or come off formulaic. Back on Car Wheels, on her upward arc into stardom, her seamless blending of folk with the mainstream was still sort of a novelty. So, what probably went orphaned as a trademark was her snarly, cavalier vocal delivery, which to this day seems so wolverine and inimitable that it hasn’t even gathered any copycats, let alone contending heiresses. And with rock music’s considerable departure from the mainstream, Williams in this era has no stifling label to answer to, issuing this rocker dually on Southern imprints Highway 20 and Thirty Tigers but lassoing us through what every step of the way feels like organic, full-bodied rock and roll.
Along the lines of this very freedom expression running wild all over this album, Williams’ vocal tone even evolves compellingly for track two “Bad News Blues.” That is, compared to the decidedly triumphant and cocksure “You Can’t Rule Me,” carrying natural qualities an opening track should, here she seems almost cowering under a crushing reality, in this way essentially mimicking an actual alteration in mood a politically median, free-thinking person is bound to experience on an average day today. Comparably, the guitar solo is ever so slightly more languid and swampy-slow, but the adamant constant is this pungent mix, on which the production team of Williams, Ray Kennedy and Tom Overby seem to have purposely accentuated the bassline to mouth-watering results.
Structurally, Good Souls Better Angels could be classified as “daring,” with what are basically two ballads at three and four, respectively. The artist and producers must have just known that this is something people could take and even with the Trump-focusing “Man without a Soul” and “Big Black Train” each emanating as political in some way, it just seems like a shot for which we were all ready. The organic style, the emotional authenticity are still unquestionable all the way through and what’s more, you’re so transfixed on the stories Williams is telling that the overall structure of the collection shuffles to the back of your mind, as an afterthought. Good Souls Better Angels is a strident singer/songwriter masterpiece but can pump in boozy bars, too, with its sturdy rockabilly sound, and hence contends strongly for best work of Williams’ career.