Here is a cheat-sheet summation of the conventional view of Lucinda Williams: She is temperamental, confessional, literary, and Southern. Temperamental comes first because she is almost as well known for the long gaps between her records as for the records themselves. Eight years passed between Happy Woman Blues, the second of two modest collections she recorded for Folkways, and 1988's Lucinda Williams, the Rough Trade release that brought her first round of critical acclaim. Six years, famously, elapsed between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Both of those breaks are longer than John Lennon's "house husband" period. And so Williams, who at 48 is older than Elvis Costello, is only up to six records with the just-released Essence.
Williams apparently finds the interest in (and critical second-guessing occasioned by) her lengthy silences annoying, but unfortunately she can't shake it simply by having followed up Car Wheels in a timely fashion. Now the question is: OK, she can do one quick (well, in three years), but will it be any good?
It's good. (Click here to listen to samples.) Most listeners will probably conclude that it's not as good as Car Wheels, and I'm not sure I'll ever think anything is as good as Lucinda Williams. And on early listens, Essence might even seem disappointing. Six quiet songs go by before the energy level cranks up on the title track, which is also the record's first single. Performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last month, Williams paced herself the same way, opening with "Metal Firecracker" and "Right in Time," then segueing into four or so soft, new numbers, setting a curious tone for what is generally a raucous outdoor event. Even an obviously worshipful crowd seemed relieved when she shifted from this string of unfamiliar murmurings and started to romp again.
So what makes Essence good, then? First, the murmuring and moaning work better in a studio atmosphere—her astonishing voice, crackling with emotion, is front and center, where it ought to be. Second, while the disc would have benefited from a different order that didn't bury all the energy in its second half, most of the quieter songs (like "Lonely Girls" and, especially, "Steal Your Love") have a kind of seductiveness that sinks in on repeated listens. "Steal Your Love" at first seemed a bit fillerish, but the more you hear it, the more the arrangement makes sense—the deliberate rhythm, the spare guitar, the subtle strings all point you toward the voice, which finally sounds as though it's groaning directly in your ear. And third, Essence does not seem nearly as worked-over and self-conscious as Car Wheels.
That's not to say that it isn't self-conscious at all, and I'm sure that Essence will be widely described as "introspective" and "personal"—confessional, to return to the cheat sheet. In this case, Williams herself fuels such notions by telling interviewer after interviewer the inside story of the real-life breakup (or whatever) behind this or that tune. Critics and profilers, after describing the bric-a-brac in her Nashville home, or possibly observing her drinking an actual Corona in a night club, invariably argue that her songs make us feel like we know her, which I guess is why they always feel free to refer to her simply as "Lucinda." (It's hard to imagine, say, Richard Thompson or Bob Dylan getting the same first-name treatment.)
With a couple of exceptions (especially "Bus to Baton Rouge"), the songs on Essence seem heartfelt and drawn from life without being quite so transparently autobiographical; they're more open to interpretation—like Bob's. (See? It's ridiculous.) The emotions in "Essence," a churning and guitar-driven wail, and "Lonely Girls," a delicate lament, are clear enough without Williams' usual narrative lyrics. Does this make them more or less "literary"? I don't know, and I think this is the least interesting aspect of the Williams idea, although it's the one she most overtly cultivates, perhaps because (as it is mandatory to mention) her father is a poet. But good songwriting doesn't need to rely on the reflected glory of comparisons to Flannery O'Connor.
Which brings us to the Southern thing. My favorite song on Essence right now is "Get Right With God," a riff on those strains of Southern fundamentalism that involve snake-handling and the like; it's been called a "gospel" track but sounds more like a Johnny Cash tune to me. That this song has supposedly caused some people to wonder whether Williams might now be born-again fits in with the idea that we know "Lucinda" through her music. (It's also ridiculous. "I would kiss the diamondback," she sings, "if I know that it would get me to heaven." You would be hard-pressed to find a true believer to endorse that particular notion of faith.)
Maybe Essence will help do away with the idea that Williams requires years of agony to produce her work: The worst thing you could say is that this might only rise to the level of the third-best record Lucinda Williams record ever made—a level few singer-songwriters ever achieve. And maybe this record will also encourage people to get over the silly idea that in real life Williams is just like the hard-luck characters in her songs. That doesn't make those characters any less true, of course, and it certainly doesn't make Williams a fake. What it makes her is an artist.