Lucinda Williams’ song “Man Without a Soul” on her latest recording is inspired by Donald Trump. (Courtesy Danny Clinch)

Angry Lucinda Williams takes on world’s sorry state

Singer-songwriter gets political in new album ‘Good Souls Better Angels’

At first, Grammy-winning folk rocker Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby, her husband-manager of 11 years, couldn’t help but chuckle at the implications of the coronavirus pandemic. “Because it’s almost Biblical, you know?” she says. “Tom was saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a plague…’ And we’re in Nashville right now, so we’ve got the tornadoes. So I said, ‘I guess that next there’ll be locusts.’ And then combined with the whole political climate? It’s just surreal, unprecedented. And it’s just not funny anymore.”

She addresses the situation on her new album “Good Souls Better Angels,” filled with stark, American Gothic-feeling tunes, from its funereal opener “Big Black Train” through the hip-shaking “Bad News Blues,” a slinky reworking of an old Memphis Minnie number, “You Can’t Rule Me.”

And with the gut-wrenching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and Donald Trump-inspired lead single “Man Without a Soul,” the album is a metaphor-laden panegyric against the climate-change-denying situation humanity has found itself in, where corporate greed, if left unchecked, could kill us all.

Or, as Williams puts it, “Mother Earth is saying, ‘OK, you guys have f—— up long enough. I’m going to put you in detention, while you sit there and ponder all the things you’ve done.’”

While “Good Souls” wasn’t composed post-pandemic, its message is eerily prescient, especially in the uplifting “When the Way Gets Dark,” with the lyric “Don’t give up/ You have a reason to carry on.”

Most striking of all is Williams’ vocal performance — she growls with the fury of a wounded animal, tracked to its turn and finally turning to face its pursuers, fangs and claws bared. When her musician friend Jesse Malin (whose recent CD she produced) first heard the record, she says, “He turned to me and said, ‘Your album is like a cross between Iggy Pop and Howling Wolf,’ which was awesome, because that’s exactly how I wanted it to sound.”

The screed can be traced back to “Blessed,” her 2011 recording which celebrated her finally finding her soulmate and getting engaged. Doing press, she recalls how she was constantly being asked if she would still be able to write her traditional unrequited love songs. “It really pissed me off,” she says: “I’m going, ‘What? I’m an artist. I’m not going to die because I’m in a relationship with somebody I’m going to be with for the rest of my life!’ But I started thinking, ‘I’m going to have to now try to write songs about something else besides that.’”

In 2019, she celebrated the 20th anniversary of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” her landmark breakthrough. The album still rang so true, she adds, “I started thinking, ‘Damn, I need to write something like that again.’”

Mission accomplished. As the Trump era’s anti-humanity enactments unfolded, Williams saw her leftist stand as the only logical one to take for individuals who want to do something about climate change. After reading what distant right-wing relatives were writing on Facebook (“‘I’m working at the bakery at Walmart, and I’m risking my life to do it. Trump cares about what I’m doing, but do you care?”), Williams says, “There’s no having a rational conversation with somebody like that. I refuse to have a conversation with anyone who’s not well-informed. And people say, ‘Well, we can agree to disagree.’ No. Not this time.”

Williams, 67, is urging other performers to step up to the political plate, especially in light of the uncertain future caused by coronavirus. Recommending listening to old Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs records, she says. “Don’t be complacent — get pissed off! What else is art for if not self-expression?”

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