Acclaimed for making acutely observed albums of country rock and infamous for taking a long time between them, Lucinda Williams has said she found it easy to record Essence (Lost Highway), and it shows. She went through three producers during the three years it took her to cut her 1998 breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a southern travelogue of oddball characters rendered in almost photographic detail. By comparison, Essence almost seems like a sketchbook, all jangly lines of emotion unencumbered by narrative. Though Car Wheels exults in writerly specificity – Williams rides through Greenville, Lake Charles, and even Nacogdoches, which she helpfully informs Yankees is in East Texas – her new album never names names.
At times, it seems Williams has gone from being rock’s Flannery O’Connor to being a sort of southern Sylvia Plath who contemplates “Lonely Girls,” laments her “Reason to Cry,” and suggests that “blue is the color of night.” But by leaving her images blurry and her singing uncomplicated, Williams has found a way to capture the sound she hears in her head and obsesses over the recording process to find. If Essence isn’t tied to a specific moment or place, Williams’s songs – gauzy but never gussied up – hover gracefully in what Williams’s idol Bob Dylan called a time out of mind. And Williams can certainly do a lot with a few lines: She pretty much sums up the entirety of post-breakup conversation on “Out of Touch” with “We speak in the past tense and talk about the weather / Half-broken sentences we try to piece together.” Though Williams has always identified her father, poet Miller Williams, as an important influence, the frankness and force of expression on Essence might also owe something to her minister grandfather.
For that matter, it owes less to hard-luck country storytelling than to the rubbed-raw directness of the blues songs she covered on her debut, 1979’s Ramblin’ on My Mind. Turning her keen eye inward, Williams finds loss, lust, and a horny old bluesman’s knack for entendres both double (“Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name / Shoot your love into my vein”) and single (“Baby, sweet baby, kiss me hard / Make me wonder who’s in charge”). Neither is the kind of lyric Williams would spend three years writing. But though a few of her new songs come off as doodles, the strongest material on Essence has as much resonance as the word paintings of her past.