Talk about timing! Though she obviously did not see it coming, Lucinda Williams’ latest release perfectly captures the shared experience of a world in the grip of a global pandemic. Early on in Bad News Blues she asserts, "Bad news hangin' in the air/Bad new layin' on the ground/Bad news walkin' up the stairs/Bad news all around" and the hues remain bleak later in Shadows & Doubts: "Yeah these are the dark new days/That much is true/And there are so many ways/To crush you." With much of it set to spare, dirty blues/electric folk backing tracks courtesy of her ace road band led by guitarist Stuart Mathis, her pique and fury make for the most tuneful and best crafted set of tunes in her oeuvre, certainly some of her most heartfelt and direct.
Thirty years into building one of the proudest singer-songwriter catalogs in the business, this poet's daughter now feels most comfortable in a couple of predictable songwriting modes. There are slow blues-based songs with choruses of repeated lines like the opener, You Can't Rule Me, and occasional midtempo almost rock numbers like Big Rotator. Her voice has become more imploring and expressive as her vibrato has departed and her range and timbre have grown into a smoky growl. Williams effectively sing-speaks her way through the spooky, reverb-drenched Wakin' Up, a frightening moment of realization in a bad relationship. Man Without a Soul is effectively, indirectly political. The album's only hopeful moment is the appropriately titled, Big Black Train, a ballad for the ages where the towering songwriter refuses to yield to hopelessness. Williams, with much left to say, musically mulls these troubled times.
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