It Has to Be About Need :: The Mysteries of Lucinda Williams’ Good Souls Better Angels

There are ugly truths at the heart of Lucinda Williams’ often claustrophobic sounding new album Good Souls Better Angels, uncomfortable reckonings built into its skeletal backbone of blues, bruised rock & roll, and heavy gospel. How do you not make this record now, Williams asks. The slow erosion of the last two decades. The election of a bitter narcissist in 2016. The tornado that tore through her new home of Nashville in March, a harbinger of the plague to come.

“There’s darkness all around me,” she sings on one song. “Gluttony and greed and that ain’t the worst of it,” she adds on another. “These are the dark new days/That much is true/There’s so many ways/To crush you,” she sums up later.

“It it going to be locusts next?” Williams asks over the phone with a laugh, the gruffly mellow voice of our current apocalypse, or at least these last few rolling chapters of it. For more than 40 years, she’s put her Southern rasp to work in service of songs about bad love and waiting, songs about freedoms denied. Good Souls Better Angels, with its tales of prowling devils and demonic men looking to exploit everything in their sight, is one of her most confrontational. But it’s an album about demanding freedoms back, of ending subjection. An apocalypse, after all, is an uncovering. Even its most savagely wounded song, the fried Stooges-riffs packing ‘Wakin’ Up,” foregrounds its narrator’s status outside of their bad dream. The people in these songs have faced down their oppressors; their situation might not be good, but at least it’s honest.

It’s Williams’ ability to bend metaphor that makes the record an effectively universal protest album. Songs like “When The Way Gets Dark,” with its tender soul shuffle, and “Good Souls” become protests the same way songs like “Man Without a Soul” and “Bone of Contention” are protest songs. They’re about small and large injustices, decrying the specific devils of our day, but also the devils we’ll have to keep an eye out for tomorrow. “It’s a lot easier to write an unrequited love song,” Williams says. “But people ask me, ‘What made you write about this stuff?’ How can you not write about it? It does feel apocalyptic.” words & interview/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: When “Man Without a Soul” was released earlier this year, I saw all sorts of headlines that said things to the effect of “Lucinda Williams Takes Down Trump,” or whatever. But the song reminds me most of “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen, in that it’s a universally topical song. It’s not only describing what’s happening, it’s describing what’s always happening.

Lucinda Williams: See, that’s the thing I’m trying to get across to people. People seem surprised or something, like “Wow, you wrote a song like that?” Well yeah, you know?

AD: That Cohen song is from 1988, but it feels like it could describe 2020. A couple years ago, you celebrated the 20th anniversary of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and in 2017, you revisited songs from 1992 with This Sweet Old World. Did returning to those songs put you in the frame of mind as a writer where you were thinking about what songs from this album might mean 20 years from now?

Lucinda Williams: I don’t really think about that. I’m not really thinking about what kind of album I’m going to make or anything when I’m writing. We cut a bunch of tracks that didn’t end up on this one. They’ll be on the next one, and it will have a different feel. The last few albums, that’s what I’ve done, just record, record, record. We always end up with a bunch of extra stuff and you start to see how the songs will fit together.

Some of these songs, I had the idea for them years ago. For whatever reason, they just get finished at a certain time. You don’t really know why that is. “Bone of Contention” I wrote and recorded back in 2004, maybe for West or Little Honey, and for whatever reason, it didn’t end up on those albums. Making this one, we realized we had that one stashed away and brought it back out. Now it totally fits with all the rest of these. “Big Rotator”—I had that refrain, “God is a big rotator”—I had that forever in my songwriting notes. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. But that’s how I’ve always been with songwriting. I keep things and go back to them. I never sit down and write everything from scratch right then.

AD: I was struck by how often the devil shows up on this record. How did you hear the devil discussed growing up?

Lucinda Williams: Both of my grandpas were Methodists ministers. My father’s father was a very progressive person. He didn’t talk about the devil and “You’re gonna go to hell.” He was more like what I think of as a Christian in the true sense of the world. He was for equal rights, civl rights. My mother’s father, on the other hand, was more of a fire and brimstone person.

But I probably got into it more when I discovered Robert Johnson and that part of the blues, that real dark Delta blues stuff, where you see that a lot, the devil as a metaphor. I got into the paradoxes in the folk-art of Santería, you know, Catholicism mixed with voodoo. I got drawn to that symbolism. The devil, the cross, bloody Jesus, Day of the Dead.

You mentioned Leonard Cohen. There are a lot of Biblical references in his writing. His early songs, Jewish references and all of that, the whole metaphysical thing. Bob Dylan too—and not [just] his Christian period, it’s in his early stuff: “God said to Abraham, kill me a son/Abe said man you must be putting me on.” Another artist would be Nick Cave. I didn’t really follow his whole thing, but in a recent interview someone told me that the new record kind of reminds them of him. He delves into that stuff.

AD: He’s a big fan of iconography. It sounds like that’s what you’re talking about.

Lucinda Williams: People get confused. They, “Say are you a religious person?” No. But they want to know what this is all about; I’m always talking about God and the devil. The Old Testament, if I were going to refer to the Bible, I’d go there. It seems to be more [thematically] versatile, for lack of a better word. It’s got a mean God. He wipes out whole civilizations. You piss him off and that’s it, you’re done.

AD: This is one of the most confrontational records you’ve made. Not just in a protest sense, though there’s that too. It makes sense, as we’re in an uncomfortable cultural moment. But is that a natural place for you to want to go as a songwriter?

Lucinda Williams: I think part of it might be may be that I’m older now. I’ve lost both my parents. I’m just at a different place in my life now. I think a lot about things that we don’t necessarily dwell on when we’re younger. A lot of this goes back to when Tom [Overby, Williams’ husband and artistic collaborator] got engaged. The big test for me was, as a songwriter, I realized I was going to have to explore different things besides unrequited love.

Unrequited love songs are easy to write. Around the time Little Honey came out, Tom and I got engaged. And when I was doing press, people asked me, “Are you still going to be able to write songs now that you’re in a relationship?” And it really pissed me off, like really, you’re buying into that whole myth? Like fill in the blank: now she’s met someone, now she’s getting married, now she’s got a nice house, now she’s making more money, now she’s more successful, so out the window goes the art? That might happen to some people, but not me.

For years and years I wanted to write about different things. It pushed me into that. This record is just another stage of that. Blessed was the first album I made after getting married and everything. People wondered if I could still write songs and I took it as a challenge like yeah, watch me. I wanted to explore different subject matter, it started there and it grew into this thing.

And even this album has different kinds of songs, there’s “Shadows & Doubts,” there are more positive songs at the end, like “Good Souls.” I try and balance it out as much as I can. I think maybe I just felt free to do this. As you get older, if you look at aging as a positive thing, it can be very liberating. This is probably the first album I’ve ever done were I thought some people might not like it, I might alienate some fans. I don’t know, especially with the song “Waking Up.” We actually discussed that, about whether it should be on the record.

AD: Because of how intense and raw it is?

Lucinda Williams: It’s right in your face. It’s about domestic abuse. “He pissed on me.” Just using that [phrase], “pissed on me.” I saw this great video of Pussy Riot, it was a song about being a woman and having a vagina. I saw this video and I ran in and showed Tom. I can appreciate it, but I’ve always been like…I want to be brave as a songwriter, and say what’s on my mind, but I also wanted it to be palatable, and have my grandparents and my aunts and uncles be able to listen to it and not be offended. And not that this is like Pussy Riot, but this is the first album I’ve stepped back and said, “You know what, I’m going to do this, fuck it.”

AD: We’ve been talking about iconography and aging, and the song “Big Black Train,” that’s where those ideas meet. It’s this mythic American vision, the long train coming to take us away. But in the song, why don’t want to get on the train?

Lucinda Williams: It’s sort of the push/pull, the positive/negative, yin and yang. All these songs have been written about getting on the train, train to glory, all this stuff. The freedom train, you know? This is like, “No, don’t make me get on that train. I know where that train is going and I don’t want to go there.” Tom has always been into creative writing. When I get into the writing mode, Tom will come up to me and say I have this idea or a title. “You don’t have to use any of it,” being real shy about it, reticent. And one of them this time was “Big Black Train,” and when he brought it to me, I said “Honey! Honey, how many songs have been written about a train? No, no, no.” He said just give it a chance, it’s about the big black cloud of depression. I said OK and I started messing with it and came up with this melody, wrote some more verses. And it clicked. It was a spiritual thing that can happen when you’re in a song. And now when I sing it, it makes me want to cry.

AD: When you play with those American themes—highways, railroads—you’re turning those ideas on your head, but at the same time, because of the way your voice sounds, it feels traditional too.

Lucinda Williams: That’s what I heard Bob Dylan doing when I first discovered him. He was using the traditional folk thing but adding this literary element. He was hanging out with Woody Guthrie but also Allen Ginsberg. I came out of those worlds too. My early influences came from American music, folk, traditional mountain music, but then there was my dad’s world, the literary world. [Williams’ father was Miller Williams, the country’s third inaugural poet.] The first Dylan album I heard was Highway 61 Revisited. I was 12 years old and had just started taking guitar lessons. It was 1965 and I heard that album. I didn’t understand it all at the time, but there was something I understood about those two worlds coming together. It made a big imprint on my brain.

AD: When you tear into the heavier, more apocalyptic songs from this record, does it feel like you’re personally tapping into the rebelliousness that defined Dylan, as well as your dad and his contemporaries?

Lucinda Williams: I want it to. But it’s hard to break the rules these days. [Laughs] I miss that. I miss that period of time where it was like, “Wow this is really cutting edge and going against the grain.” Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. God, there are so many great things about the times we’re living in with the technology and all its advantages, but there’s something I miss about the time before all that, when everybody didn’t know everything all the time.

AD: But your records—they preserve that sense of mystery. You’ve been making records for a long time. Does it get easier to tap into that mysterious force or harder as you become more proficient at what you do?

Lucinda Williams: I can still tap into the mystery. Definitely. I don’t think it gets harder. It’s a whole different thing when you’re younger, meeting people, and you’re mystified. It’s a whole different world. But I’m the same person I’ve always been. I have to contend now with all this stuff. Aging, people get older and they get unwell and they have to walk with canes and have hip replacements. Their attitudes and perceptions change with all the rest of it. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for me. I’m the same girl I always was.

Maybe it’s because I didn’t have kids. I’m at this age where I get asked these questions, how do you keep doing what I do. I had to do an interview for AARP the other day. “How do you stay healthy when you’re on the road?” It’s like I’m an anomaly or something. But I still feel like it’s there, I just have to tap into it. It’s a different thing now. Part of it is just opening my brain to writing about different things. I don’t know what happens to other songwriters who make a few good albums and then they quit, or their music isn’t as good anymore. I don’t know why that happens.

Maybe it’s because I grew up around poets. I remember my dad telling me as a poet you don’t even start to get respected for your work until you’re in your sixties. The jazz world, the blues world. I remember once, Tom and I went to see Honeyboy Edwards, who was like 98 years old or whatever he was—he remembers hanging out with Robert Johnson! We went to see him play a couple years before he died and he sounded amazing. I expected to see this feeble old man who couldn’t play anymore. A lot of it has to do with your attitude. Look at Leonard Cohen’s later stuff. He still had that ability. I think you have to be so passionate about it. It has to be a need.

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