LUCINDA WILLIAMS || 'Good Souls, Better Angels'
Lucinda Williams didn't allow the pandemic to slow or stop her recording or performance schedules. In 2020, in addition to a regular schedule of live-streamed performances, she released two albums: “Good Souls, Better Angels,” a collection of originals; and “Runnin' Down a Dream: A Tribute to Tom Petty,” 13 covers from a narrow swath of Petty's deep, wide catalog, solo and with the Heartbreakers.
“Good Souls” is a 60-minute diatribe, a five-alarm manifesto that attacks head-on the previous four or five years of political/social warfare. Here, the message is the medium. Thus, the songcraft – draped in scabrous and gritty electric Delta blues – is secondary to the cathartic, sometimes inflammatory lyrics.
Song titles make clear whom she's excoriating: “Man Without a Soul,” “You Can't Rule Me,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Elsewhere, they articulate the dread and bleakness that had spread like another pandemic: “Big Black Train,” “Shadows & Doubts,” “Bad News Blues.”
The closing ballad, “Good Souls,” is a gust of wary, uneasy calm and relief after a long, hellacious storm – what a lot of people seem to be feeling these days. It's a cast as a petition for help and support when the inevitable darkness begins to descend: “Keep me in the hands of saints. Keep me with the good souls, with the better angels … When I'm feeling weak.”
The Petty tribute comes off as a one-off for Lucinda completists – those who will be most interested in her unvarnished takes on a batch of songs from one of the best songwriters in rock history. Diehard Petty fans are likely to shrug and nod with respect but defer to the originals.
There's little to no remodeling of Petty's work here; she remains faithful to the originals. The most overt differences are the austere arrangements, which strip songs of the Heartbreakers' polish and punch, most notably the keyboard wizardry of Benmont Tench.
A personal theme is overtly implied. Petty, like Williams (a native of Arkansas), is a child of the South (Florida). So Lucinda and the band re-create numbers like “Southern Accents,” “Rebels,” “Gainesville” and “Down South,” imbuing them with a sense of kinship.
Elsewhere, instead of 40-karat classics like “American Girl,” “Refugee” and “Breakdown,” they address nuggets like “You Wrecked Me,” “You Don't Know How It Feels” and “Face in the Crowd.” Williams manages to treat each with respect without slipping into deference, as if they were her own.
She closes with “Stolen Moments,” a tribute/hymn she wrote from the perspective of Petty's widow: “In stolen moments / You're ridin' with me / You're ridin' with me again … It's like a heartbeat / I think about you.”
Her warble wobbles more than it used to, and her drawl stoops deeper and heavier these days, but more than the loss of youth and elasticity, age can signify character and hard-earned wisdom. And in 2020-21, Williams' voice and music convey lessons learned and expose wounds in various states of scarring and repair.
Ed. note: Williams disclosed on May 4 that she was recovering from a stroke she'd suffered a few days before Thanksgiving. She expects to recover and resume recording and, maybe, touring in 2021. We wish her that and all the best.