Purity of Essence

I'm gonna have to steal your love: Lucinda Williams

SO MUCH HAS been made of Lucinda Williams's literary gifts that I'm tempted to say that what I like about her music seldom has anything to do with her lyrics. Except, of course, in many cases it actually does. Her lyrics may not be any more specifically "literary" than, say, those of someone like Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie, but the words certainly matter, especially when you can relate directly to them.

There's no small correlation between the fact that "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad"--the opening track on 1988's Lucinda Williams--is on my Greatest Songs Ever Written shortlist and the minor detail that I've had three long-distance relationships in seven years. On the page, the song's lyrics are a beautiful description of finally meeting a long-distance lover face to face. Williams's condensation of an entire relationship into a single song is accomplished in 27 lines, 12 of which are recitations of the title. Which is pretty damn literary. But on record, its shout-along hook and its rollicking organ lick carry equal significance.

It might be inevitable that most of the reviews I read about Lucinda Williams and its long-awaited followups--1992's mortality-minded Sweet Old World and 1998's Rand McNally tribute album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road--made them seem less like musical works than exceptionally good dissertations. But those words wouldn't carry nearly as much impact without Williams's rounded, almost voluptuous melodies and careworn vocals supporting them.

A relatively speedy three years after Car Wheels, the new Essence (Lost Highway/Mercury) opens with a song that simultaneously de-emphasizes and sharpens the focus of the lyrics. "Lonely Girls" might as well be a haiku. Never mind lines: There are a total of 21 words stretched over four languid minutes. Williams's lazy drawl has seldom sounded so tender, so forlorn. But she's not drowning in self-pity, either. She's just meditating, as usual, on the details, as in the line "Heavy blankets cover lonely girls."

"Steal Your Love" is equally brilliant, with Williams searing her words ("Did they lay down a law and lock up your heart?/I'm gonna have to steal your love") into Bo Ramsey's subdued guitar line like a brand burning into leather. The ingenious "I Envy the Wind" completes the opening hat trick. Or it would, except that Williams opts to sing the whole thing in a vibrato that feels as overstated as the steroid-enhanced country crooning (see: Faith Hill) that her latecoming minor success is supposed to counteract. (After years of cult status, Car Wheels went gold.)

A similar overcompensation affects the title track. Not only does Williams sing it in an embarrassing slavering growl, the song itself feels just as uncomfortable, with said "essence" acting as a clunky stand-in for something ethereal (aura, let's say) and earthy (wink wink, nudge nudge). It's enough to make you long for the refreshing candor of Penthouse Forum. It's also one of the only songs here that actually jumps rather than seeps out of the speakers. (The other is the rousing "Get Right With God," whose tongue-in-cheek title acknowledges that winning His favor is something she needs to work on.)

Still, most of Essence is worth the attention it requires. I'm especially fond of "Reason to Cry," in which the singer figures that "when nothing makes sense/You've got a reason to cry." If Williams wants to use her skills--literary, or otherwise--to make a terrific, albeit uneven, album every three years instead of a perfect one every six, then I'll second that emotion.

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