Lucinda Williams: Essence
Jul 7, 2001
ESSENCE, Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway)
True to its title, Essence finds Lucinda Williams’s work distilled to its purest state. In the past, this 48-year-old Louisiana-raised songwriter has borrowed the economical forms of blues and country, but here these are merely the starting point as she sets out to create something even more terse and true.
You won’t hear another album this year that delivers as many emotional blows with so few strokes. At first one might wonder if anything is going on here at all. Essence begins quietly, and with just a couple of exceptions towards the end, it keeps growing quieter, until in the final “Broken Butterflies” the pieces fly apart and there is literally nothing left. It makes a striking contrast to Williams’s past three albums – Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World, and Car Wheels On A Gravel Road - in which she almost single-handedly defined and set the standard for so-called alt-country. Though these discs were all underscored with melancholy and longing, each opened on an upbeat rocker, and her excursions into balladry always seemed to lead back to barroom rock ‘n’ roll.
But the songs Williams has written this time are far bluer, way beyond the redemptive power of any rock ‘n’ roll dance. She has assembled a rarified group of players to colour these dark studies. From Bob Dylan’s current band come bassist Tony Garnier and guitarist Charlie Sexton (who shares with Williams the production credit); there’s underrated guitarist Bo Ramsey, and perhaps most crucially, drummer Jim Keltner, once referred to as “the only drummer who could make you cry”. With Sexton’s looped guitar figures and atmospherics, the settings have something of the dark ambience Daniel Lanois created for Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.
But the most carefully placed instrument of all is Williams’s voice. Always far more raw and regional than that of any of her contemporaries, it is no coincidence that Patty Loveless and Mary Chapin-Carpenter have scored hits with Williams songs where the writer never has. Here she exploits all its breaks and blemishes to achieve not just an astonishing range, but performances that in each case match the specific emotion of the song. Tags like alt-country cease to be meaningful when the voice she finds for the title track’s confession of sexual need has more in common with the gut-wrenched howls of PJ Harvey. The fragile resolve in the voice of “Blue” conveys another painful truth; that far from regretting her sorrows she is, in fact, in love with them, courting them in song.
To complete her process of cutting away anything not absolutely vital, Williams has turned the scalpel on her own songwriting. In the past a Williams trademark has been the way in which she has grounded her emotional scenarios in concrete reality, by observing such minutiae as the graffiti on a wall or brand name on a beer bottle. But for Essence she has turned inward, where feelings are the only furnishings. So much so that the sole exception, “Bus To Baton Rouge”, while wonderfully evocative in its details (camellias, cinderblocks, “the company couch/covered in plastic”) seems an almost unwanted throwback. More typical of the record is “I Envy The Wind”, in which elemental forces – the sun, the rain, the wind – become erotic symbols; or “Lonely Girls”, in which each haiku-like image (“heavy blankets”, “sparkly rhinestones”) seems to carry an entire untold story.
Williams is a perfectionist and melancholic, who until recently had not completed a new song in five years. Word has it that shortly before recording Essence she broke up with her bass-player boyfriend. Almost immediately she went on a writing binge, and composed the entire album in fourteen days. No wonder she sounds so convinced when she sings: “You can count your blessings/I’ll just count on blue”.