Review: Lucinda Williams "Essence"

Category: Music

This thread is intended to be a review of the Lucinda Williams "Essence" CD released in July 2001. I hope to have others write their critiques along with mine on this thread. I also encourage others to begin review threads of other disks they have enjoyed with the hope of developing a library of reviews to have on file. Please understand I have no background in evaluating music so it may be a tad crud.

This disk is a following up to Lucinda's highly acclaimed 1998 release "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road." As customary with Lucinda, the time between releases is too long for this fan, but more than worth the wait. "Essence" is less like "Car Wheels" and more akin to her 1988 self titled release, "Lucinda Williams." The majority of "Essence" is quieter and far more instrumental than her past effort. I would relate this disk to the "Greenville, Still I Long For Your Kiss and Jackson" cuts on Car Wheels. The cuts of "Abandoned, Like A Rose, Am I Too Blue and Side Of The Road" on her self titled disk all have a commonality with Essence along with the live bonus cd cuts #13-18. (If you have not had the chance to hear this disk, please do so, it's a must!)

I have continued to enjoy all but one of the cuts from the "Essence" 11 song collection. A few of my favorites would be #3 "I Envy The Wind," #4 "Blue," #6 "Are You Down" #8 "Reason To Cry" and #11 "Broken Butterflies" As you can tell from the song titles Lucinda's life still appears to have its low spots, but that makes for some great writing. I believe Lucinda is among the most talented song writers today. On this album she has raised the bar by a couple of rungs in that these songs are more like poetry and stories than catchy tunes. Her first inspirations that lead to her becoming a musician came from hearing Bob Dylan's Highway 61 album, and it shows here in her creative inner meanings. "Broken Butterflies" is the best poetry put to song in a long time, this is a very special track. The music scoring (also by Lucinda) is every bit up to the quality of song writing. She assembled a new band for this venture and the sometimes four guitars (often acoustic) along with a Hammond B3 organ are played to perfection. On quite a few tracks the lead guitar is reminiscent of Peter Green during his Fleetwood Mac years. Just exquisite! The drummer shows an incredible control over his craft, on "Are You Down" the effect is wonderful as the sound appears to recede into the sound stage. But it's Lucinda's voice that still does it for me. One could hardly call it beautiful or smooth although she has more of that quality here than in the past. I call it honest raw emotion with less concern for a pretty tune, but more a focus on purity. For those who have heard and enjoy Lucinda you know the gravelly, throaty emotion of her soul. Here she has created a backdrop of that quality and mixed it with a deep soft warmth that combines for an experience not found in any other musician. Maybe Emmylou is comparable, but not in tone, just emotion.

On the song "Blue" she is able to show all her vocal abilities at once. A soft, warm, almost innocent voice is contrasted with a raw jagged gravelly sound that has helped display profound pain and loneliness. No where is this more acutely shown than in the closing bar. Often on this track a canvas of sound is created with the raw energy, only to be pierced with a pinpoint depth of her words. The only way I can think of describing the effect is with the image of walking up to a cold window, either in your house or even the supper market. If you breath on the window the glass will fog, a tightly directed breath created a tight opaque spot, where an open chesty breath will fog the entire window but the glass retains its transparency. This is the effect that the harsh and gravely voice created, filling the entire sound stage with an etched picture and yet the deep soft words are still able to come through as if a small spot of the fogged window was wiped clean. The song is incredible and if I was to summarize the feeling I get from this disk, it would be that picture I've tried to paint.

I have listened to this disk almost every night and it still has yet to wear. If you need a new Lucinda fix pick-up "Essence" and don't forget her 1988 self titled disk either.

It's starting to grow on me but I don't think I could go an inch further in that direction. One twang'd note and I'm standing in line at the return counter. This has been her saving grace so far. (no voice twanging) I think the twang I heard was just my cat (She seems to be enjoying the cd more this time around also) Sounds a little like Joan Osborne with maybe a hint of Susan Vega.

To be truthful I don't collect new music so I may be a little to critical. I normally don't even consider buying anything that hasen't stood the test of time for at least 5 years. That's just me!!!
With Lucinda, often less is more, but Glen you realize that, if you took a liking to the first track "Lonely Girls", which has, like, all of six different lines of lyrics. There's a great kind of stillness in this album that may take time to sink into your pores. Or, she might not be your type. As far as her soul, I think LW was bred in rural blues but her soul ranges far and wide, through country, folk and rock, as far as -- judging from comments she's made -- punk and grunge. I even think the intense inwardness yet unadorned spareness (no psychotherapeutic ramblings here) of her writing shows something of her punk/grunge leanings. Of course, it could just be the delta blues. Still, I could see her itching to just thrash it out for one whole set or CD. I think she didn't quite hit the mark lyrically on a few tunes on Essence but still like the album very much. Oh, thanks, JD, for your review. --Jayson
I confess the album bored me after awhile. The songs run the same vocal line into the ground, as if she was unable to generate a bridge vocal. I know bridges can be gimmicky, but a well thought out transition reinvigorates the verse melody. To my ear at least, without one, a verse/chorus song drags to a close.