Review Summary: Sweet Sad Songs Sung by a Lonely Girl
When a typically upbeat musician strips their sound down to the raw basics for a ‘sad phase’, the artistic success or failure of the move depends primarily on the question of legitimacy. The change of pace is often attributed to heartbreak, familial death, or general world-weariness, but the cynical listener must consider the possibility of contrivance. Beck
mostly pulled it off when he followed the riotous “Midnite Vultures” (1999) with “Sea Change” ‘s unexpectedly revealing showcase of sadness and regret. Lucinda Williams
, fresh off her long-deserved commercial breakthrough “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1999), takes the dive in her follow-up, “Essence” (2001).
So, is “Essence” a deliberate, calculated move or a genuine exploration of a torn soul? For all the brilliance of “Car Wheels”, the captivating country-rock rhythms, bouncy lyrics, and catchy melodies bordered on overstaying their welcome, especially considering how thoroughly these same atmospheres were explored in her (excellent) earlier works “Lucinda Williams” (1988) and “Sweet Old World” (1992). Though I’ll never know for sure, “Essence” feels real enough – I buy it. “Essence” is a clear turning point – considering the soppiness of “World Without Tears” (2003) and “West” (2007), Lucinda Williams
’ career will always be divided between before “Essence” and from “Essence” on.
To be fair, “Essence” is likely to throw a listener off at first glance. Williams opens with the least accessible song on the record, “Lonely Girls”, a sorrowful tune that consists of blatantly repetitive chants of the two-word title interrupted by the occasional personal perception like “I oughta know/I oughta know/I oughta know/About lonely girls”. The immediate effect may seem pretentious and self-indulgent, but repeated listens reveal “Lonely Girls” as a perfect introduction to the album. The fluttering guitar line establishes a delicate aura of inward distress, and the continuous pronouncement of “Lonely Girls” has an immersive, psychedelic effect.
Williams eschews every reliable element from her earlier albums as the songs flow in loose to nonexistent structures and her trembling voice weaves in and out slow to midtempo laments. The gorgeous “Blue” and “I Envy the Wind” find her vocals straining to long, wailing notes. The raw sound epitomizes William’s vulnerability – a more polished sound would have a distasteful, artificial effect.
The title track is perhaps the most striking song on the album. Williams sings “Baby, sweet baby” with a sharp bitterness. The chorus shows the repetition of “Lonely Girls” returning to a new, powerful effect as Williams cries “I am waiting at your door/I am waiting at your back steps/I am waiting in my car/I am waiting at this bar/I am waiting for your essence.” “Essence” is the cathartic release of the emotional anguish built up through earlier songs.
The album relaxes a bit after the title track, and for a moment the quality wanes. “Reason to Cry” meanders a bit too much, and “Get Right With God” sticks out like a sore thumb as the sustained atmosphere is abruptly broken for a dated rock tune. “Get Right With God” is admittedly as much fun as anything from “Car Wheels”, and its inclusion is understandable considering no other song could possibly be a single. Still, it’s remarkably out of place – the only way it could possibly work is as a bonus track.
Fortunately “Essence” ends on just as solid of a note as it begins. “Bus to Baton Rouge” enraptures with eerie nostalgia as Williams visits her abandoned home to find “The company couch covered in plastic/Little books about being saved/The diing room table nobody ate at/And the piano nobody played.” It’s the title song from “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” with eloquence replacing the older song’s spark. “Broken Butterflies” offers no relief, escalating from a long, sparse instrumental introduction to vehement insults. Her cries are blunt: “black pollen in its self-righteousness/You are a traitor and a thief/Choking on your unplanned words/Coughing up your lies/Tumbling from your mouth/A flurry of broken butterflies.” The lyrics – with its religious allusions – may seem over-the-top, but the tracks before “Broken Butterflies” (“Get Right With God” excepted) supply an emotional momentum that makes the closing song into another highlight.
’s work was never the same after “Sea Change” – his attempts at modern funk and techno-rock on “Guero” (2005), “The Information” (2006), and “Modern Guilt” (2008) were all laden with meditations on death and emptiness. Similarly, “World Without Tears” and “West” merely showed slight (and inferior) variations on the restlessness and self-doubt of “Essence”. “Essence” is a beautiful album that lives up to the luscious cover art – a collection of sweet sad songs sung by a lonely girl.