Essence

Lucinda Williams

Lost Highway Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/21/2003

Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road may not have set the charts on fire, but it was the album that had critics swooning in 1998. She beat out Lauryn Hill in Village Voice for "Album of the Year" honors and netted her a Grammy award. It was an album six years in development and was considered by many to be one of the best albums of the '90s. After scoring a banner year in 1998, the pressure for a follow-up loomed.

Three years later, Williams released Essence, arguably her most intense and intimate album. Most people would shrug at the time it took for my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Essence to come out (the album's actual recording time was only a few weeks), but when you're operating on Williams time, three years is like three months. The album was recorded in a fit of creative inspiration and is just enough of a departure from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. While Car Wheels came close to being over-produced, Essence revels in its imperfections. Some songs drone on for too long, some sound too much like one another.

Three songs stand out on Essence: "Blue," the title track and "Get Right With God." "Blue" represents the majority of the songs on Essence; it's heartbreakingly sad and forces the listener to absorb all of the pain. It's the equivalent of seeing a friend cry and break down in front of you at a restaurant. "Essence" is the most mainstream song in the bunch and "Get Right With God" is instantly memorable because it's the most uptempo song in the bunch by a landslide.

Essence's biggest flaw is its lack of song variety. It's the first Lucinda Williams album that forces you to give it third, fourth and even fifth listens before it sinks in. Essence was not an "album of the year" type album of Williams. Instead, it was an album that she felt she could record with her new creative freedoms gained by Car Wheels' success. That all said, it is an album that has held up extremely well for repeated listens.

Essence is definitely not the first album you should purchase from Williams. Many of the faults and imperfections on Essence, she corrected in this year's World Without Tears . Like all of her albums, her voice, strong and weary at the same time, remains the main reason to pick it up. For many hard-core fans, Essence stands as her crowning achievement, mainly because of its loose style. As for other listeners, Essence will probably sound like it could have spent a little more time inthe cooker.

Rating: B

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© 2003 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Lost Highway Records, and is used for informational purposes only.