Encore From a Utopia

Lucinda Williams’s Essence Comes Quick and Goes Slow

You could say this linguistic strategy revisits Lucinda Williams, give or take a "Passionate Kisses" and an "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad." But it isn't just the avidity of those lyrics that's absent, it's the avidity of the music. Not only is Essence slow, its sole rocker, the faux Pentecostal "Get Right With God," it's kind of slick. Chorus harmonies whisper Jordanaires. There's viola on three tracks. Where Gurf Morlix was sharp, veteran guitar man Bo Ramsey goes for pretty, veering well toward Mark Knopfler on "Are You Down?" And while Williams still plays her voice for crack and overflow and fissures of feeling, her projection is subdued, settling in on a weary, conversational croon. Avid would be nice. Funny thing, though—call this singing weathered or call it complacent, it highlights the words just right.

Like many others in due time, I don't necessarily approve of all this. I'm certain the new record isn't as surefire as its three predecessors, and I'm obliged to mention a shockingly dire finale featuring Biblical citations as purple as its title, which is "Broken Butterflies." But grant Essence its prerogatives and soon it justifies them—on most of these songs, and generally not the ones you notice first, the synergy of words and music is so uncanny that it would be pure crankdom to pretend it isn't doing what it sets out to do. Within the slowly obsolescing parameters of the singer-songwriter form, imperfect Lucinda Williams is immensely more effective than peak almost anyone else. I've been listening to plenty of hardworking folkies who prove it, and along the way I've also sampled relevant efforts by such eminences as honorable old Dolly Parton, admirable new Eileen Rose, helpful Emmylou Harris, hapless David Byrne, and, just for fun—much the best of these, but a clear runner-up nonetheless—Bob Dylan on the aforementioned Time Out of Mind. Be glad Kasey Chambers, who'll open for her June 6 at Roseland, belongs in the same room. On the merits, Lucinda Williams is too damn good to deny.

All of which is to say that Essence begins by bringing doubts into relief and ends by burying them in its own druthers. Not entirely, however. One of the songs you notice first is the title track, an avid almost-rocker that puts Williams's bullshit on full display—baldly doom-seeking love-is-the-drug trope right down to "Help me get fucked up" and "Shoot your love into my vein." When artists I like express this kind of impulse, as happens all too frequently, my usual reaction is to pray they'll go back to the bass player. But with Williams this would be flushing empathy down the toilet—she's too much the egoist, too obsessed with her calling. Instead I figure that what all those wasted charismatics are for her she can be for me—a conduit to values and experiences whose limitations are all too clear. I don't believe in the natural any more than she has a death wish. But there's no one like an edge dweller to show you how precious and precarious life is. And only a convinced cornball like Lucinda Williams can manipulate tradition with the emotional skill to save it from an untimely end.

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

Listen to Robert Christgau's "Dean's List" Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m., on Village Voice Radio.

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