Lake Charles native, Fortier alumna and 2001 Jazz Fest headliner Lucinda Williams is in a precarious artistic position. On one hand, she's on top of the world, still savoring her breakthrough 1998 Grammy-winning and gold-selling CD, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. On the other hand, she faces the pressure of delivering her follow-up to Car Wheels, and Williams isn't known for working quickly -- she's only released five albums since 1979. That relentless perfectionism has frequently led the mainstream press to brand her as a diva -- a label that Williams hates -- and intensify expectations for Essence, Williams' new CD.
Essence is bound to throw Williams aficionados and newer fans for a loop, as it sounds like Williams has undergone a meltdown -- of song tempos, narrative structure and melodies.
Her stylistic departure is set up with a revamped band and a production sound cloaked in atmospheric echoes and fades. To complement her steady guitar foil Bo Ramsey, Williams brought in former Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist Reese Wynans, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, and the duo at the heart of Bob Dylan's touring band, guitarist Charlie Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier. Sexton shares co-producing credits with Williams, and they've crafted a sonic terrain reminiscent of Daniel Lanois on Southern soil.
Williams has always been a conduit for heartbreak, and "Lonely Girls," the album's opening track, shows that she's still channeling sadness. But she seems to be revisiting her delivery methods. "Lonely Girls" doesn't have any verses, and is loosely held together by five impressionistic couplets ("Pretty Hairdos, Pretty Hairdos, Pretty Hairdos / Worn by lonely girls ...") and a refrain crooned like a mantra. Keltner's snare drum brushstrokes barely rise above a whisper, and Williams' acoustic guitar strumming sounds miles away.
It's one of many moments on the album that feels emotionally disconnected, despite the subject matter. On the hookless "I Envy the Wind," Williams' languid phrasing draws out every line, and she sings behind the beat, which is a difficult feat considering that the song would start moving backward if it were played any slower. "Blue" also lags, substituting a violin for the rhythm section, and Williams' voice sounds like a wounded tomcat crying in some distant alleyway. "Reason to Cry" and "Broken Butterflies" complete a quartet of songs -- and quarter of Essence -- where Williams equates lyric truisms and crawling instrumentation with added emotional power, and the results don't add up. Coming from the woman who rivals another Williams -- Hank -- when it comes to singing lovesick blues, it's disappointing.
Like the Lonesome Drifter, Williams rings truest when singing songs with an edge. Essence picks up steam halfway through with "Out of Touch," as a pair of former lovers awkwardly crosses paths and a mutual friend's suicide comes up in conversation. Fittingly, as Williams' lyrics turn darker, the music follows suit, with Sexton's barbed guitar notes ebbing in and out of the mix like summer heat waves on a Delta highway. Wynan's simmering Hammond B-3 organ fills follow Sexton's lead in "Are You Down," where Williams drawls a permanent dismissal to a paramour, delivering the news with a fitting mixture of power and loss.
That combination is Williams' greatest gift. With her rough-and-tumble promiscuous cowgirl twang, she's always felt like one of the boys, and one who could drink you under the table to boot. But that bravado is tempered in her songs with a yearning for love and a catch in her voice, and she brilliantly captures that duality in Essence's title track. Williams plays the role of the stranded dysfunctional lover, begging, "please come find me and help me get f--ked up," "come on and let me taste your stuff" and "shoot your love into my vein." Few contemporary female performers could pull off such a performance, or dare to write those lyrics in the first place.
The other highlight of the album is "Bus to Baton Rouge." The novella-like waltz is a beautiful ode to her childhood home, and its neighboring camellias, honeysuckle, and fig trees, and ranks as a strong addition to the canon of previous Louisiana-centric Williams compositions such as "Lafayette," "Louisiana Man," "Lake Charles" and "Joy."
"Bus to Baton Rouge" is sequenced late in the album, and especially coming on the heels of the anomaly "Get Right with God" -- a stomping distorted blues fitting for the Fat Possum catalog -- there's ultimately a feeling of too little, too late. While no one wants to wait six or 10 years between Lucinda Williams albums anymore, Essence might be a case where Williams jumped the creative gun. True to the album's title, there are affecting, resonant moments here, but the flip side also holds true: too many times, these songs feel weightless, and easily slip through the fingers. -->