No less an authority than Emmylou Harris recently wrote in Time magazine that Lucinda Williams “could sing the phone book and probably give it meaning.” Well, her latest album, Essence, isn’t quite the phone book, but I found it much less lyrically compelling than Williams’ 1998 classic album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That album had almost a travelogue quality as it took us on a tour of childhood memories and towns in the American south. One track here, “Bus to Baton Rouge,” sounds like a leftover from Car Wheels. But for the most part, Essence barely leaves the bedroom, and that’s part of the problem.
The other part of the problem is that the record barely moves beyond mid-tempo over the course of its eleven tracks. Ace guitarists/producers Charlie Sexton and Bo Ramsey provide subtle but effective backing throughout the record and help goose the snake-handling fundamentalist, slide guitar blues of “Get Right With God,” one of the record’s only up-tempo moments. Veteran session player Jim Keltner’s insistent drum work on “Out Of Touch” is also welcome.
And fortunately, Williams’ voice sounds as great as it ever has on tracks like “Lonely Girls” and “I Envy the Wind,” which are circular in construction and repeat lines over and over in the blues tradition. On these songs, she manages to convey loneliness and longing with an economy of words and images. She also exhibits remarkable vulnerability on “Blue,” which Roy Orbison could cover if he were still around.
But listening to Essence, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be a really good Bonnie Raitt album, but because I’ve come to expect more from Lucinda, it’s a bit of a disappointment. The title track is all come-on, as Williams heavy breathes, “Baby, sweet baby, can’t get enough/ Please come find me and help me get fucked up.” Like Car Wheels’ “Right In Time,” it has a great chorus, but like that song, it comes off as calculated, and frankly, a bit tawdry. Lucinda doesn’t have to “work it,” and she doesn’t have to be explicit to be sexy. After all, she could pretty much sing the phone book, and well, you know the rest.