Encore From a Utopia

Lucinda Williams’s Essence Comes Quick and Goes Slow

A year ago, Lucinda Williams was the subject of a grueling, penetrating, National Magazine Award-nominated New Yorker profile by Louisiana-born Granta founder Bill Buford. This isn't merely the best thing ever written about an artist journalists have long adored. It's a classic portrait, adulatory and unillusioned all at once, of a "genius" (even if Buford leaves the G-word itself in the mouth of departed guitarist-collaborator Gurf Morlix, and also in a parenthesis). Cultural before he gets personal, he crafts a steamy evocation of Williams's South, then tells the stories of the dead lovers and other wasted charismatics who inspired her songs and then demonstrates how songs they inspired aren't literally about them. He records a balls-out yet strangely theatrical and philosophical public argument between Williams and her bassist boyfriend. And in a matter-of-fact concluding paragraph, he reports that Williams and the bassist are through after five years—as is her writer's block of about the same duration.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Essence, which three years past the gold-certified breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road stands as Lucinda Williams's quickest album since she started trusting her own material in 1980. What will she do for an encore, you wanted to know? Whoomp, here it is. It's well-named too—abstract and ethereal by Williams's standards. Watch out for that backlash, now. Could get wicked.

At the National Magazine Awards, New Yorker editor David Remnick wished out loud that Williams liked Buford's piece as much as everyone else did. Even if she weren't a mad perfectionist, however, that would be a lot to ask. Geniuses tend to be impossible people, and Buford's Lucinda is no exception and a half. She can be " 'the sweetest, most thoughtful, kindest person you'll ever meet,' " then glower like a stormcloud or strike out fangs bared. She works assiduously at the downhome naturalness she's beloved for—worrying her looks, collecting Southern kitsch, even, Buford suspects, trotting out specimen bubba-buddies for journalistic delectation. Anyone who's had doubts about her taste in men is now sure—roughly speaking, she fluctuates between doom-seeking egoists and bass players she can push around. We're also left with the feeling that the main reason she broke up with this one is that she feared a stable home life was distracting her from her calling.

An underdog no more
photo: James Minchin
An underdog no more

Buford reports none of this with relish. He conveys only respect, regret, and unmitigated affection. Nevertheless, Williams has the right to want to be loved not as a tremendously gifted neurotic, but as the passionate paragon (nice gal?) she knows herself to be deep down. And she also has the right to worry that many who read Buford's profile won't cut her as much slack as he does. Because, as will be clear inside of a month, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road cost Williams her underdog status.

For a full decade—only two albums, OK, but 10 years—Williams was the great rankling injustice of the American popular music system. Not only were 1988's Lucinda Williams and 1992's Sweet Old World gorgeous, flawless, brilliant, they weren't even threatening. Musically and morally, they embraced realism, directness, sincerity, emotion, the natural. They rocked often enough, but they were noisy in neither the Jacques Attali nor the turn-that-shit-down sense. There was nothing remotely postmodern about their exploitation of tradition; what small dissonance or irony they allowed reinforced rather than undercut their humanism. They had tunes. They had soul. Yet so gaping were the cracks in the music system that they owed their shamefully cultish measure of success to pointy-headed nerds whose hopes for the future were better embodied by Nirvana and/or Public Enemy—not, please, Mary Chapin Carpenter or Tom Petty, bestowers of the better-late-than-never cover hits that kept Williams afloat during the six years preceding the thrice-produced Car Wheels. Which by dint of raw substance, accrued goodwill, and committed major-label support finally elevated its creator into an NPR cynosure with a sustaining audience of folkies-by-nature, alt-country postpunks, New South culture vultures, and a miscellany of bereft riffraff who never read rock criticism but are perfectly capable of relating to straight-ahead songs that shouldn't have needed it.

Although Essence is Williams's most imperfect album since 1980's Happy Woman Blues, her audience is sure to love it. Now that they've found her, they're not going to let her go, especially since she's the kind of high-performance artist who compels one to substitute "most imperfect" for "least accomplished." But those with no appetite for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tom Petty are left with a thornier problem that's only slightly complicated by Essence's artistic shortfall, whatever that might be. Formerly, spreading the word was a no-brainer—Williams was too damn good to be ignored, so that combating her commercial obscurity was a righteous cause. Since she'll never be ignored again, however, one's brain must now reenter the fray. One can't help wondering exactly how much one identifies with what she uses her superb skills to say—her ideas, her themes, her obsessions, her meaning; her dolor, her desperation, her romanticism, her bullshit.

Essence brings such doubts into relief by cutting off the pleasures of Williams's trademark concreteness. On Sweet Old World, short-story details ("chess pieces," "dresses that zip up the side") packed a textural thrill akin to local color; Car Wheels generated a similar vibe cheap by dropping Southern place names, over a dozen all told, most of them Louisianan. This time both methods are in abeyance, and the glaring exception—"Bus to Baton Rouge," which catalogs an old house—seems weak and wrong. That's because the inspired songs here, only one or two of which reference anything that could be the breakup she gratefully asserts got her writing again, impact lyrically as something like generalized modern pop, or perhaps (with Dylan sideman Tony Garnier now on bass) the fabricated monosyllabic archaicism of Time Out of Mind. The problem with these analogies, over and above the unlikelihood that either ever crossed Williams's mind, is the album's penchant for blood-simple metaphor. "Steal Your Love" and "I Envy the Wind," "Blue" and "Are You Down?" turn over the elementary possibilities the clichéd titles set up like there's gold in there. "Lonely Girls" incants three commonplace two-word images: "heavy blankets," "pretty hairdos," "sparkly rhinestones." And though "Out of Touch" and "Reason to Cry" work differently, shading plain talk into eloquence and home truth, in fact all the nothing-fancy metaphors around them inhabit identical territory: the songwriter's utopia where speech and poetry are the same thing. Forget theme—that's what the album's about.

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