Lucinda Williams once more bares her soul, and Essence is her latest after a three-year hiatus since her fabulous Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. However, gone are her more poetic and cathartic lyrics, and the lyrics in Essence are surprisingly banal. It is the way Ms Williams evoke multifaceted emotions in her husky voice that elevates Essence to greatness.
For example, the opening track Lonely Girls is pretty much a variation of “Lonely girls, lonely girls, lonely girls” – repeat and repeat. But I doubt there are many singers who could sing this one phrase and makes it sound as if her heart is breaking from loneliness with every word.
I Envy the Wind is the rare moment when Ms Williams display the lyrical virtuoso in her, with erotic words that evoke desperate obsession, pain, and loneliness so well that it’s pure catharsis. Songs like Blue are the worst: I find these songs painful to listen because Ms Williams sounds as if she is bleeding to death before my very eyes. Or ears, as this case may be. Beautiful, but oh, so painful at the same time.
Essence is a very stripped down album, minimalist even, with most songs being nothing more than a simple hook repeated over and over again. Coupled with lyrics that are banal compared to her usual style, this album can be one dull listen if Ms Williams hasn’t bared everything out in the open: her religious confusion, sexual yearnings, melancholy, despair, and epiphany. One could argue that this is a form of shameless exhibitionism that the likes of Tori Amos have overkilled to the point of being self-parodies, but really, people, listen to her sing!
It is almost a relief to hear the jaunty and happy-sounding Out of Touch, her duet with Charlie Sexton, until I listen a little closer and realize that she’s singing about detachment and alienation in the modern world. Sigh.
Sometimes too painful for words, Essence is not an album for everyone, I guess. It’s catharsis but it’s also depressing at the same time, and I can’t imagine radio playing Lucinda Williams for a lark. But for a good time of bittersweet fun and songs that engage one’s emotions and wring one dry, call Lucinda Williams.