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.
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.
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.
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