It's remarkable to hear so powerful and potent an artist as Lucinda Williams sounding as victimized and forlorn as she does on her sixth album. Essence is a perplexing record, partly because of its foray into the sleek, high-tech musical style recently embraced by Emmylou Harris, and partly because of its odd collision of steamy eroticism and abject depression. The temptation with a singer/songwriter is to read more into her work than she may have intended, to protectively or leeringly figure out what the songs have to do with her life. Of course, Williams is a skillful enough craftswoman that the record's uneasiness may be intentional — a series of character studies or thematic exercises. But the tone of the album, which doesn't vary much from song to song, is so pointedly glum and rueful that we can't help but wonder what's going on.
The same question is posed by the studio production, which is the sort of stuff that's dragged many a winsome folkie into the quicksand of crossover commercialism. Thankfully, Williams' Dire Straits-styled meandering is nowhere near as florid as the embellished pop of Daniel Lanois or Nanci Griffith, and there are only a few spots where producer Charlie Sexton overplays his hand. Still, even on stripped-down, ostensibly acoustic numbers, there's an extra layer of glitz that's at odds with Williams' unmistakably craggy, blues-drenched voice.
Williams says she was trying for a more music-led approach on this album, taking her cues from synth divas such as Sade rather than country craftsmen like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. It's a questionable step, one that undercuts her strengths as a songwriter and creates a narrative as cloudy and amorphous as the music itself.
A remarkably precise lyricist, Williams often addresses her songs directly to the listener. We're the stand-ins for the drunkards, rascals, and ne'er-do-wells she falls for, watches fail, and ultimately forgives. Here, the simplicity of that arc seems undone: She still sings of yearning and lust, but she seems tired of letting all the fuck-ups off the hook. It's not even clear if she's still reproachful — now she just sounds worn out.
Williams' newfound nebulousness suggests that, in abandoning forgiveness, she might also be forsaking the comfort of nostalgia and the clarity of the past. It's as if she's brashly given up constructing perfectly chiseled Southern novellas to become an understudy in an off-Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot. Although it demands our attention in the here and now, Essence may simply be an uneven bridge between Williams' phenomenal early work and her hazy, less definite future.