The Voice of Righteous Indignation

Yeah man, I got a right
To talk about what I see
Way too much is going wrong
It’s right in front of me – “You Can’t Rule Me” 

And Lucinda Williams does in unsparing fashion on her devastatingly powerful new album, Good Souls Better Angels. Released in the midst of a global pandemic and days after a tornado swept through her East Nashville neighborhood, you’d think that the album’s second track, “Bad News Blues” was written contemporaneously with breaking the shrink wrap on the package. What does righteous anger sound like in the Trump era? This.

Let’s talk for a moment about Lucinda Williams’ voice, her actual voice and her metaphorical voice. To call her voice distinctive barely scratches the surface. Raw. Unvarnished. Evocative of dimly lit clubs with the wet smell of cheap beer and stale cigarette smoke. World weary. Bluesy. Full of pathos and righteous indignation. Lucinda Williams doesn’t sound like anyone else in Americana.

Hers is the voice of the poet, the blues traveler, street prophet, and the working woman dealing with the violence of patriarchy in a collapsing socio-economic order. The religious imagery within extends beyond the album title. Deals and delicate dances with the devil. Souls lost. Souls wary about hope. Journeys through dark valleys shadowed by physical and spiritual death. Drawn in by her plaintive cries, we discover the patron saint of America’s dark night of the soul. 

But the righteous anger and the blues-tinged laments are anchored in an America after the crossroads, in the aftermath and wake of her deal with the devil. Sold the winds of dramatic change (tear it all down!) we are reaping a whirlwind of destruction. By the time we are led through the 50 minutes of music we have witnessed our nation’s deteriorating, violent landscape. 

Williams inhabits the artist as prophet here. The truth teller unfettered by considerations of popular reception or the proprieties of euphemism. No time to talk falsely now, the hour is getting late. From the watchtower she names the plagues: constant bad news, soulless leadership, and helplessness in the face of individual and collective depression. 

In “Wakin’ Up” we have an unsparing depiction of domestic violence, jarring in its graphic imagery. But the narrating voice in the song is not merely victim. She is “wakin’ up,” claiming a fierce power that emerges from the unflinching recognition of the horror of her psychopathic, narcissistic abuser. Religious imagery here doesn’t diminish real life material conditions or leave violence unchallenged. One can only “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” by naming him in the real violence, lies, and death all around us.

Much has been made of the song, “Man Without A Soul.” Is its subject our current president? Certainly, but like so much prophetic discourse, individual examples serve as symbols of broader principalities and powers. The song is about Trump but we miss the depth of its power if we fail to recognize that it is also about the conditions fertilizing the soil where our current dark night took root.

The loss of soul is the loss of human connection. Idolizing the individual, disconnection literally leads to death in manifest forms. We’re not left bereft. The closer, “Good Souls” is a prayer to be kept in righteous, beloved community. We are all in this together. But Williams seems to tell us, we can’t reach this hope-full close without looking directly and honestly at the carnage around us. Telling the raw truth is a form of loving our neighbor. The road to hope cannot escape the path of lament. Lead on, St. Lucinda. - Rick Quinn 

*This is the first of what we hope to be weekly, short-take installments we are calling Ordinary Riffs. We are planning to have these post each Wednesday.