Songs don't come quickly to Lucinda Williams, especially when she's having a good time. In one infamous interview, she all but admitted to breaking off a relationship just to spark her muse. Essence follows a mere three-year gap for this least prolific of artists, whose previous comeback, 1998's excellent Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, took twice as long. The relatively quick turnaround ironically indicates that all may not be well in the world of Lucinda Williams. Apparently inspired by Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind, Essence appropriates that album's ghostly atmosphere, even enlisting Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton as a producer. But where Dylan's album is haunted by the specter of death, Williams' pain stems from some less metaphysical place. A great artist at her most downbeat and dejected, Williams doesn't sound eager to please with Essence. Gone are Car Wheels' rich narratives and bare emotions, as well as the inimitable melodies of her spectacular self-titled album. Instead, Williams sounds withdrawn and mysterious, awash in feelings that may be too personal to share this time out. The lyrics of "Lonely Girls," "Steal Your Love," and "I Envy The Wind" are like charcoal sketches, with plenty of simple repetition taking the place of her usual poetry, but Williams' voice croaks with a sadness that suggests she knows too well what she could be saying to take up all that space. Not surprisingly, the more explicit she gets—as with "Out Of Touch," "Reason To Cry," "Broken Butterflies," and the desperate, wrenching title track—the more pronounced her pain becomes, but that sense of injury and vulnerability even pervades the barren, jammy neo-reggae of "Are You Down." Being punched in the gut doesn't leave a lot of room for words. Williams sounds similarly hurt, and Essence has the power to leave listeners breathless in sympathy.
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