‘Essence’ was Lucinda Williams’ 2001 follow-up to ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’, and if ever there was a hard act to follow, this was it! Its gentler tone made for an immediate contrast, but its antecedence was nonetheless clear throughout the album. Closest to the style of its predecessor are ‘Out of Touch’, and ‘Get Right With God’, the latter a full-on rocker, a staple of her live set ever since, and which won her a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. ‘Essence’ also garnered two other nominations, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Vocal Performance, for the title track. The lyrical themes of ‘Car Wheels’ carry through on this, an epitaph to obsessive love, Williams singing “Baby sweet baby/kiss me hard/make me wonder /who’s in charge”, to a driving mid-tempo band arrangement.
But it’s on the softer side of the remaining tracks that the album truly shines, with stand out tracks including ‘Blue’, a gentle meditation on depression, with its classic opening line “Go find a jukebox and/see what a quarter will do/I don’t want talk/I just wanna go back to blue”, its chorus featuring soaring strings, and with Williams characterful vocals finding a new tone, with powerfully emotional vibrato. ‘I Envy the Wind’ features the same breathy vibrato, with evocative and poetic lyrics. ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ takes us to a familiar Louisiana setting, with its relaxed waltz time signature, while the beauty of the musical arrangement to ‘Broken Butterflies’ contrasts with the bitter Biblical imagery of its lyrics “You spread your anger on sharp-edged knives/Cut my skin and make it bleed/Like pilate in his self-righteousness/You’re a traitor and a thief”.
Album opener ‘Lonely Girls’ has a bucolic feel, but with an underlying sadness, wistful minor chords following major as Williams sings “Sparkly rhinestones, sparkly rhinestones, sparkly rhinestones/Shine on lonely girls/I oughta know, I oughta know, I oughta know/About lonely girls”. ‘Steal Your Love’ takes us to familiar lyrical territory, as she sings of not bowing down to defeat when faced with unrequited love, with longing rather than bitterness.
‘Reason to Cry‘ features a relaxed shuffle feel, with its 7th chords leaning towards jazz, while ‘Are You Down’ is blues-tinged, again featuring that relaxed shuffle, Hammond organ and scratchy guitar.
With Williams on vocals and acoustic guitar, the line up is completed by Jim Keltner on drums, Tony Garnier on bass and acoustic guitar, Bo Ramsey on electric guitar, Charlie Sexton on drums, hand drum, rhythm guitar, Hammond B3 organ, piano, backing vocals and tremolo slide guitar, Reese Wynans on Hammond B3 organ and Jim Lauderdale on harmony vocals, with additional contributions from David Mansfield on viola, Ryan Adams on tremolo guitar (‘Essence’), Gary Louris on backing vocals (‘Essence’) and Joy Lynn White on backing vocals (‘Get Right With God’, ‘Bus to Baton Rouge’ and ‘Broken Butterflies’).
Often overshadowed by its illustrious predecessor, ‘Essence’ still stands as one of Williams’ finest albums.