By Bill Friskics-Warren
Essence (Lost Highway)
When Lucinda Williams played River Stages last month, she dedicated “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” her snapshot of a time-out-of-mind Delta juke joint, to the late Joey Ramone. The gesture didn’t appear to be all that personal, not at first, anyway. Williams and the much-loved Ramones frontman, who’d just succumbed to lymphoma, certainly knew each other; they’d even done a songwriters’ night at New York’s Bottom Line together. But it’s not like they were close friends or anything. Much as hundreds in her audience that afternoon had done since Joey’s death, Lucinda was just lighting a beacon for the punk progenitor few of us will ever forget.
Still, it was hard not to come away that day with the sense that Williams felt a deeper kinship with Ramone than her tribute at first suggested. After opening with two crowd-pleasers from her 1998 breakthrough album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she sank deep into six straight studies in blue, all from her new Essence, and all sloughed off at more or less the same somniferous tempo. Formally, her ruminations bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Ramones’ fractious forcebeat. But in their own narcotic way, they were nearly as rhythmically single-minded and, oddly, as in your face. Demanding that we submit to the music on her terms, Lucinda’s set was fairly Ramonesian in attitude and intent.
That’s doubtless how some will experience Essence, an uncompromising and at times confounding affair. A test of endurance, even—a rewarding one in most respects, but a test nonetheless. Nearly all of the album’s 11 tracks proceed at pretty much the same crawling pace. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But whereas the high-speed rush of, say, the Ramones’ mono-metered workouts affords a certain visceral thrill, Essence puts virtually all of the burden on Lucinda’s voice, songwriting and otherwise. It’s a load that, as gifted as she is, not every note here can bear.
Chief among the album’s missteps are the Lizard King poses she strikes on the title track (“Baby, sweet baby, you’re my drug / Come on and let me taste your stuff”), the Wise Blood retread of “Get Right With God,” and the outmoded hipster argot of “Are You Down?” Most of the time, though, the performances, which are rarely less than urgent, overcome even lapses like these. Williams’ willowy drawl is as nuanced and commanding as ever, by turns briny and magnolia-sweet, and sometimes both at once. And steeped in languid grooves and the supplest of rhythms—and with the guitar lines of Bo Ramsey snaking everywhere like kudzu—much of the penumbral, almost ambient music on Essence is mesmerizing, and gorgeous. Built around a fetching chord progression reminiscent of “I Got You Babe,” “Steal Your Love” would be downright hooky, a radio ready-made, were it not dispatched at what feels like 16 rpm.
Like everything else on Williams’ new album—her sixth since Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were in the White House—“Steal Your Love” is a far cry from the chiming, cascading melodies and thwacking roots-rock of Car Wheels. Witness, for starters, the skittering, dub-style murk of “Are You Down?,” a signature that’s more Souled American than Son Volt. Granted, the album offers a dash of Lucinda’s beloved roadhouse blues, notably on the Staples-inspired “Get Right With God,” but most of Essence smacks of Dusty in Memphis rendered as a loop-wise cross between Neil Young’s On the Beach and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon: as bittersweet soul music for depressives. Listen closely to the undulating lyricism of “Reason to Cry” and see if it doesn’t put you in mind of a strung-out Sam Cooke. Indeed, sit through the entire record and see if much of it doesn’t emanate from what seems like a junk-induced fog.
That goes double for the album’s lyrics, which consist almost entirely of loose, introspective meditations—stream-of-consciousness tone-poems and collages of imagery better suited to curtained drawing rooms than smoke-filled bars. And apart from “Bus to Baton Rouge,” a series of postcards so evocative you can almost smell the camellias Williams is brooding about, Essence is bereft of the writerly narratives like “Pineola” and “Lake Charles” that we’ve come to expect from her. This time around, she’s less consumed with crafting plot lines than with plumbing emotions, the rawer and more unfiltered the better. It’s almost as if, stripping her feelings down to their affective core, she’s bent on charting her interior horizons and letting them speak for themselves.
Take the lightly throbbing “Lonely Girls,” its first verse opening with Lucinda intoning the title phrase four times before filling in the frame with the lines, “Heavy blankets / Heavy blankets / Cover lonely girls.” Barely a complete sentence, yet it conveys plenty, maybe more than all the detail she packed into “Car Wheels” or “Drunken Angel.” A mere juxtaposition of images, but one to which any of us who’ve sought to stave off the cold ache of loneliness can relate. And that’s to say nothing of when, dropping the other shoe on the final verse, Lucinda repeats her “lonely girls” litany for the fourth time and moans, “I oughta know / I oughta know / About lonely girls.”
It’s as devastating, and brilliant, as anything she’s ever written, even if not immediately so. That said, there’s at least a handful of tropes here that aren’t so inspired—indeed, that are almost “stoopid” in the Ramonesian sense of being willfully simplistic or “dumbed down.” How else do you explain a Cat in the Hat rhyme like “I am waiting in my car / I am waiting at this bar” if not as a case of pissing on expectations?
Bob Dylan has done something along these lines from time to time, notably after his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. Biographer Robert Shelton speaks of this period in Dylan’s life and career as a “retreat from significance.” This was our hero forgoing the grand statements of his previous records for the puckish capers of The Basement Tapes and the simple, heartfelt paeans to domesticity of Nashville Skyline. Shelton, of course, is right, but only half-right. This phase marked a major shift in perspective and sensibility for Dylan, but it wasn’t so much a move away from significance as from one type of meaning to another.
Which is just what appears to be happening on Essence. Now that Car Wheels has won her acclaim beyond her cult, it’s as if Williams is intent on peeling back the layers of artifice in hopes of discovering how her music, distilled down to its very essence, can mean differently. If, as one critic argued, the brilliant, sweeping Car Wheels was the Blonde on Blonde of the ’90s, then Essence, by contrast muted and elemental, is this decade’s John Wesley Harding. Not since Lucinda Williams, the 1988 album that established her cult, has Williams sounded so at home in the recording studio.
Not only that, for the first time in ages, she doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we like what she’s doing or not. Look at how she introduced “Joy”—hooked by the snarling line, “You got no right to take my joy / I want it back”—at River Stages. Sending the song out to everyone in town who talked her down for taking so long to make her last record, she seethed, “You can kiss my Dixie white ass.” The raging, Southern stomp that followed might not have been “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but it was pretty damned punk—and so, in a very loose sense, is her new album.
Not only that, for the first time in ages, she doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we like what she’s doing or not. Look at how she introduced “Joy”hooked by the snarling line, “You got no right to take my joy / I want it back”at River Stages. Sending the song out to everyone in town who talked her down for taking so long to make her last record, she seethed, “You can kiss my Dixie white ass.” The raging, Southern stomp that followed might not have been “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but it was pretty damned punkand so, in a very loose sense, is her new album.
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