Flash-forward to 2003. Lucinda Williams is holding court in a New York hotel with a gaggle of Gotham critics. As the hours drag on, she grows listless. Each writer has been allotted 45 minutes to quiz her about the follow-up to Essence, her CD released in June 2001. The questions are all starting to sound the same because, well, they are. Inquiring minds want to know: Has she gotten this downer stuff out of her system, and will she be getting back to the Grammy-winning, radio-friendly sound of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road?
It's a fair question. Instead of the Byrds-like jangling guitar sounds and the hook-laden chorus of Car Wheels opener "Right in Time," Essence's "Lonely Girls" comes wrapped up in a (wet) blanket of atmospheric guitar riffs and mournful strings. Williams lets no discernable oxygen enter her lungs while barely enunciating the barren lyrics. It's enough to make Margo Timmins sound perky.
From there, Essence doesn't cheer up much at all. The 11 tracks seemingly expose the dark places in Williams's life. Loneliness, frustration (sexual and emotional) and anger, not to mention in-your-face and metaphorical drug references, are all part of the mosaic. It's not what you'd call the perfect soundtrack for an impromptu trek to Austin to catch her last set at Antone's.
Williams even looks the part of the just-out-of-recovery rocker in an accompanying publicity photo, which drums up memories of Keith Richards, circa 1979. She is used up, detached, her eyes ringed in black, and she's got some messy stories to tell.
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In "Steal Your Love," Williams grinds down the melody line from "I Got You, Babe" into a story about a dysfunctional relationship in which the protagonist stalks an untouchable lover. "I don't need a knife," she sings. "I don't need a gun. I know how to steal your love."
In the title track, Williams's insatiable need for love (is it a fix?) as she spits out the words, "Baby sweet baby, I wanna feel your breath, even though you like to flirt with death; baby sweet baby can't get enough, please come find me and help me get fucked up " And in "Get Right with God," which her press agent claims is a foot-stomping ode to old-time religion, Williams comes across more creepy than cathartic, singing about folks who kiss and dance about with rattlesnakes.
The musicianship is understatedly powerful. There is no backbeat until the fifth cut, "Out of Touch." Charlie Sexton and Bo Ramsey, who both contributed to Car Wheels, are back again, each with production credits this time; guitarist Gurf Morlix also returns to the fold. Their virtually flawless work occasionally ventures toward a free-form, jazzy feel. It's apparent that Williams agonized over the sound of each and every note.
The questions arises, Is this another stunning breakthrough like Car Wheels? The short answer is no. It's probably better to think of Essence as a companion piece to the previous CD, the second part of a double album conceived years ago. It's also the Broken English of the new millennium, an album by an artist who has a lifetime of frustration to vent. Williams delivers her dark messages in a way that will leave many of the new generation of so-called edgy female singers gasping for air.