Lucinda Williams isn’t into appointment songwriting. She stays up late, wakes up even later, and writes when the spirit moves her. She also holds on to everything: a possible lyric scribbled on a piece of paper here, a song title in a notebook there. Williams turned 67 in January, moved from L.A. to Nashville, and finally got organized.
“I put them all into files and named each one,” says Williams, calling from her new house in Nashville, which she shares with her husband, collaborator, and manager, Tom Overby. “I have hundreds of pages of notes and lines, so I sorted it all out. Now, when I sit down to write, I pull that stuff out and I can refer to it.”
Organized or not, she still doesn’t carve out time for songs. “I’m not really disciplined like some people are, setting the clock and writing from 10 in the morning till three in the afternoon,” she says. “I probably should do that, but I don’t.”
The lack of routine is treating Williams well. Her new album, Good Souls Better Angels, released last month, is her most electrifying record in years, and sprang up spontaneously during some downtime in Nashville. In between tours, she visited the studio of Ray Kennedy, who engineered her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and found herself inspired to record some songs she had written. Surrounded by her longtime band of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton, and with Kennedy’s cache of vintage gear at her disposal, she reacquainted herself with unbridled rock & roll.
“I’ve been wanting to get that kind of sound on an album, that crunchy thing,” says Williams. “It was pretty obvious after the first track. Hearing it back, it was like, ‘Wow, this sounds amazing.’ There we were, making an album.”
While some past records had songs that tended to plod, leaning perhaps a little too heavily on the blues, each song on Good Souls Better Angels is determined to reach a destination. Elements of the blues are still present, but mixed with a punk-rock energy. Tracks like the brutal “Wakin’ Up” and “Bone of Contention” are jagged knives, with Williams’ famously idiosyncratic vocals slashing through the din of her band.
“It’s like Muddy Waters meets the Stooges. It’s a badass record,” says Jesse Malin, whose 2019 album, Sunset Kids, was produced by Williams and Overby. “There’s a dirt and a nastiness, where they went into a room as a band. She’s another example of people, like Dylan or Nick Cave, who get older and get more real and raw.”
And devilish. Despite its heavenly title, Good Souls Better Angels finds Williams with her pitchfork out. She eviscerates the amoral Donald Trump in “Man Without a Soul,” skewers an “evil bastard” with “three sixes and deadly tricks” in “Bone of Contention,” and laments the “so-called friends … out to surround you” in “Shadows & Doubts,” a song she has said was loosely inspired by accusations of “manipulative behavior” made against Ryan Adams in a New York Times story last year. (Adams denied the allegations.)
“It was really different to know somebody who had these accusations thrown out at him. I wrote it around that idea, but it can also be up for interpretation. Which is really what all my songs are like. It’ll start out as an idea for one thing, like a seed, and then it grows into something that can mean different things,” she says.
Williams is enthralled by the different ways that evil can manifest itself. When she wrote the brooding “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” she pulled out her trove of lyrical ideas and came across one that said, “He’s so evil the devil won’t have him.”
“I was just reading something online about different people who have sold their souls to the devil, besides Robert Johnson,” says Williams. “I’ve always been fascinated by that, the devil personified, in the way it comes out in folk art and particularly in Delta blues songs. There is one that I discovered that I loved, a song called ‘Don’t Let the Devil Ride.’ It’s the devil in the form of a hitchhiker. You know how the devil personifies himself and you get lured in? I love all that. The metaphors there are hard to resist when you’re writing.”
In January, Williams set sail on the fifth annual Outlaw Country Cruise and previewed songs off of Good Souls Better Angels alongside staples like “Drunken Angel,” “Changed the Locks,” and “Joy.” Watching her onstage, dressed every bit the punk in Chuck Taylors, a black leather jacket, and a knit hat, she seemed reborn, triumphantly raising her fist in the air during a set-closing cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Williams was energized, and hopeful, mirroring the vibe of her then-upcoming album.
“Maybe part of it is a confidence thing as you get as you get older,” she muses. “But [in the studio], it felt great to do the songs. We felt that way the whole time; we were all feeling it.”
Somehow, with the devil looming in the lyrics and the doomsday clock ticking its way toward midnight, Williams made an album of hope and promise.
“I have to remind people there have always been things going on. Even though now it’s horrible and it’s unprecedented, we’ve always had problems and things we get through,” she says. “But people are saying this album is so right for the time. It’s the perfect time for all these songs.”