BY CHRIS WEBB
Like the blossoming flower on the cover of her latest record, Lucinda Williams creates music that is vibrant, delicate and full of life in all its natural, fragile beauty. Heralded as one of the finest songwriters of our time, she continues to stun audiences with tunes that speak volumes and a voice that says even more. And her latest masterpiece, Essence, is just another remarkable demonstration of her uncanny knack for striking synergy with words and music.
From her early days in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Williams was exposed to a ferocious blend of words and sound. Her father, Miller Williams, was a renowned poet and her mother, a talented pianist. It wasn’t long before the young Williams began to absorb these elements, eventually forging her own amalgamation.
In the years to follow, Williams began a slow and strange rise to stardom. While her first record was released in 1979, it wasn’t until 1988’s self-titled album, containing the Grammy-winning “Passionate Kisses,” that Williams started to really hit the scene. Sweet Old World received much acclaim upon release in 1992 while 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road jumped onto many Top Ten lists, earned her a second Grammy and gained notoriety as one of the most influential records of the last half-century.
After the runaway success of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, many thought Williams would have difficulty with a follow-up. But Essence is proof otherwise. Eclectic and powerful, it shows that the real secret to Williams’ genius is writing and singing about real life’s pain, pleasure and everything in between.
Capturing moments of stark betrayal and unadulterated joy, Williams still takes you places you couldn’t find if you tried, her trademark voice sweetly calling you into a world of relentless truths.
The songs of Essence touch on everything from yearning desires to religious euphoria. The title track is pure lust wrapped in bluesy guitar, a hungry swagger that’s perfectly contained by Williams’ breathy vocals. The laid-back seductiveness of “Steal Your Love” paints with broad Dylanesque strokes as the epic ache of “Broken Butterflies” displays some of Williams’ finest writing to date.
The entire album is filled with signature Lucinda longing and yet, is completely different from anything she’s every done.
“I’m proud of this record,” Williams happily remarks. “I’m proud of these lyrics and this music. It’s a bit of a departure for me and it’s a very mature sound.”
Light on narrative and heavy on mood, most of the songs on Essence are sung in first person. Written quickly after a tough breakup from a lengthy relationship, these tunes are knee-deep in romantic loss.
“I had just come out of a four-year relationship and I went into a writing frenzy,” Williams explains. “I wrote all the songs close together and within two months, I had an album’s worth of songs.'”
With a distinctive style, Essence gives the sense of someone finding their emotional compass. Williams shows us just how precious and precarious life is, manipulating tradition with the skill to save it from an untimely end.
“I’m overly sensitive,” Williams has said about her songwriting. “I was talking to this friend of mine the other day and they said, ‘You’re so sensitive.’ And I said, ‘How do you think I wrote all those songs?”
Such ardent moments have allowed for wonderful twists and turns down avenues rarely explored, especially on this latest effort.
“This album was very liberating for me,” she says openly. “I let myself lean on the music, to just turn myself over to the groove.”
With production help from Bob Dylan’s guitarist Charlie Sexton and studio assistance from veterans like Gary Louris, Jim Lauderdale, Jim Keltner and Tony Garnier, Williams easily found that groove. Add Williams’ unmistakable voice to the mix and you’ve got a winning combination.
Emmylou Harris once joked that Williams could sing the chrome off a trailer hitch. In all honesty, Williams’ 48-year-old voice is as powerful as ever, capturing raw emotion with each intense syllable.
A relentless artist, Williams continues to foster a tradition of greatness, repeatedly putting her career on the line in the hope of preserving all that’s real, authentic and human about music.
“This is the most secure I’ve ever felt in my life,” Williams said recently. “Before there was always some transition or upheaval to deal with. But I feel blessed now.”
Bookending the record, the artwork on the back of Essence boasts the surreal image of a man and woman, bodies intertwined with faces touching in a careful embrace. One body is whole while the other appears skeletal and fragmented. At the bottom are the words “El Romantic.” Graceful and gripping, it’s the perfect ending and a colorful reflection of the personal work contained within.
Lucinda Williams performs on Saturday, September 15, 2001 at the Opera House. Ron Sexsmith opening. Sold Out as of press time.