Happy Valentine’s Day! If you find yourself without a romantic partner today, think about all the other wonderful people in your life. Chances are you are a lot more surrounded by love than you realize.
Disc 1105 is… Essence
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Year of Release: 2001
What’s up with the Cover? Flowers in vibrant orange and luscious pink. How appropriate for Valentine’s Day!
How I Came To Know It: I discovered Lucinda Williams listening to Steve Earle (she did a guest spot on one of his records). “Essence” was just me digging through her collection once I knew it was all good.
How It Stacks Up: I have 12 Lucinda Williams albums, I thought was all of them but when I checked I discovered that last year she re-recorded her 1992 album “Sweet Old World” with four new songs and called it “This Sweet Old World”. I’ll have to check that out. For now, I’ve got 12 and “Essence” ranks 6th best, which is pretty solid.
Ratings: 4 stars
Before I put on a Lucinda Williams album, I try to mentally steel myself for some raw emotion that is going to reach deep down and find my vulnerable centre. It never works though; you don’t mentally steel yourself for Lucinda Williams – you just get on board for the ride.
“Essence” falls between her folksy early work and the more blues driven alt-rock of her later records. It has elements of both and does a solid job demonstrating that these two sides of her sound are complementary.
The first half of the record is the more folksy side, although with a thick echoing production that provides an almost pop vibe. While I would’ve been happy with less ambient sound in these songs, the opening few tracks are still some of the strongest the record has to offer. Good songwriting and an honest performance will always overcome.
“Lonely Girls” has a gentle bass-note strum with a light simple melody layered above that belies a deep sorrow with a bit of wistful “woe is me” brushed across the top of it. This is a song that captures the sadness within beautiful women, dressed up and presenting confident to the world, but filled with doubt internally. For anyone who has ever wondered if the beautiful people have doubts too, “Lonely Girls” confirms they do.
Few artists do sexy like Lucinda Williams. Hers is neither a girlish flirting nor a sexy strut – it’s a slow seduction, starting somewhere deep within and flowing out, revealing her hidden desires until you feel flush, and a little uncomfortable. “Essence” is one of her sexier albums, with the insistent “Steal Your Love” and the wistful “I Envy the Wind.” The title track digs deeper than all of them, with an urgency so intense it becomes a physical addition; an itch that must be scratched. Or in Lucinda’s words:
“I am waiting here for more
I am waiting by your door
I am waiting on your back steps
I am waiting in my car
I am waiting at this bar
I am waiting for your essence.
“Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name
Shoot your love into my vein
Baby, sweet baby, kiss me hard
Make me wonder who’s in charge.”
You can sense the woman in this relationship is flirting with danger, but the desire is so great you feel as swept up in its wanton abandon as she is.
Another Lucinda tradition is a nasty break up song, and “Essence” has a solid entry with “Are You Down”. Lucinda sings:
“Can’t force the river upstream
When it goes south – know what I mean
Nothin’ will make me take you back
Are you down, babe, down with that?”
Williams is just as sexy and seductive on this song as she is on “Essence” but the words make it very clear that this time he’s getting none of it. This song also features some brilliant blues guitar from Bo Ramsey which adds atmosphere and groove. It is a song that makes you wish you could ask your ex for a slow dance, even though you know in your heart as she’s just going to tell you to get lost.
“Are You Down” and “Essence” appear about midway through the album and signal a shift from the folk-pop elements the record opens with and into a deeper blues groove. Things tend to slow down from here, with meandering romantic crooners and languid narratives about people and places that take their time getting where they’re going.
These songs are beautiful, but overall I think they lose a little in their emotional impact when compared to the insight, sex and vengeance that comes before.
If you like Lucinda Williams’ sound this may not be the first record you buy, but you shouldn’t pass it over for long.
Best tracks: Lonely Girls, Steal Your Love, I Envy the Wind, Blue, Are You Down, Essence