Lucinda Williams brings a brave, riveting vulnerability to Essenceand, for me, it's her masterpiece. Yet you are more apt to find it in the big-box department-store cutout bin than at the top of most people's desert-island lists.
Perhaps the sensual melancholy of Essence was too personal, maybe it held too much dark intrigue. She takes chances lyrically, and there's this hard-bitten musical sparseness, notable in the wake of 1998's more narrative Grammy-winning breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."
That very interior complexity, the way even now it keeps revealing new layers, is what keeps me coming back to this record. There is a stark, sometimes scary, confessional honesty that recalls Neil Young's Tonight's the Night," but with an expansive, Daniel Lanois-esque atmosphere provided by guitarist and co-producer Charlie Sexton. Pulling in elements of folk, country, blues and rock, but never quite settling, Williams' music is as intricately absorbing as her storytelling.
The Louisiana-born Williams, now in Nashville after an apprenticeship in Austin, runs the emotional gamut. Almost unbearably fragile on I Envy the Wind." A coiled sexual force in the title track. Resigned to a modern's world's hard truths on Out of Touch."
Then Williams goes deeper, thinks harder, takes her hands off the wheel.
So go to confession, whatever gets you through," she sings on Blue," sounding torn to shreds. You can count your blessings. I just count on blue." Are You Down" begins as a skeletal rumination on a ditched former lover, before swerving into an stimulating instrumental interplay between the searching guitar of co-producer (and fellow Louisiana native) Bo Ramsey and keyboardist Reese Wynans, a former Stevie Ray Vaughan sideman.
Williams attempts to come to Jesus ("Get Right with God") and to come back home ("Bus to Baton Rouge"). But ultimately, she is left in the silent expanse of longing. Broken Butterflies," the final track here, has the lyrical verve of early period Bob Dylan with the mournful anger of 1997's Time Out of Mind."
Maybe this rough-hewn confessional shined a light on too many uncomfortable places. Shocking, indeed, for those who wandered in looking for the songwriter behind ironed-out covers like Mary Chapin Carpenter's Passionate Kisses," Patty Loveless' The Night's Too Long," Tom Petty's Changed the Locks" or Emmylou Harris' Crescent City."
Instead, Williams' sweet sadness, her determined intimacy, her unshakable focus on truth telling, it all hits you like a thunderclap. She throws away most of what had made her famous. She looks unblinkingly at things that would make any lonely girl cry.
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