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August 2001 Pick of the Month


Essence
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Label: Lost Highway 

Just the first few lines of "Lonely Girls" and she’s got you. Lucinda Williams doesn’t need many words to convince you that she knows what she’s talking about. It could be loneliness (and it probably is). It could be longing (and yeah, it most likely is). It could be pain, a heart in pieces, or those embarrassingly blunt words of desire that you’ve always wanted to say to someone but dignity won’t allow it. She says it for you. For us.

Essence, the new release, goes even deeper than Williams’ past efforts. It’s aptly titled. The award-winning, fantastic alt-country collection Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was packed with songs for just such an occasion; you sing them while in motion. Essence, on the other hand, is the blood and bone emotion, the stuff that’s true whether you like it or not. This is what you feel, under the eloquent evasions. These aren’t the songs she wrote with a band out on tour; they sound more like the songs she’d sing to herself at the end of a long hot day, a cigarette in hand and a drink lightening the head and loosening the tongue. 

Her father’s daughter (Daddy is the acclaimed poet C.K.Williams), Lucinda’s poems aren’t riddled with double-meanings or allusions. They wear their hearts on their record sleeves. Loneliness and need seem to be a pressing theme, a personal issue in some songs, an epidemic in others. "Out of Touch" holds up a mirror to modern society, addressing our suffocating solitude in an overcrowded world: "We may pass each other on the interstate/we honk and cross over to the other lane/everybody’s going somewhere, everybody’s inside/hundreds of cars, hundreds of private lives…" It’s quid pro quo: if Lucinda’s gonna open up to us, she’s gonna challenge us to open up to each other.

And she does open up, dressing her wounds in stories of broken women, escapees from bad love, survivors, students of life’s tougher lessons. She’s famous for her lusty love songs like "Passionate Kisses" and "Right in Time"; this time it’s the fiery title track and a soulful confession called "I Envy the Wind," which is made of those lyrics that are so beautifully simple you can’t believe someone hasn’t written it before. "I envy the rain/that falls on your face/that wets your eyelashes/and dampens your skin/and touches your tongue/and soaks through your shirt/and drips down your back…" On the flip side, "Are You Down" is a tough-love diatribe to an ex-lover, a resolved remark that he had better just let bygones be bygones and get on with his life. This smoky progression sounds influenced by the smoky, late-night blues-rock sound of Bruce Cockburn’s Nothing But a Burning Light or The Charity of Night; I found myself waiting for Bruce to jump in and solo. 

Fortunately, the songs aren’t all about loves won and lost. She knows you can’t get to the essence of things without talking about faith and its own vital longings. "Get Right With God," one of only two songs that step into rock-and-roll territory, is an energetic anthem of starting fresh: "I would burn soles of my feet/burn the palms of both my hands/if I could learn and be complete/if I could walk righteously again…". And "Broken Butterflies" sounds like the diary of a person who has blazed her own trail to an understanding of Christ; now she rails against the Pharisees who know nothing about suffering for love. Without sarcasm or spite, she appeals: "Will you ever learn to just forgive/will you open your beautiful eyes/and bleed the way Christ did/and fix the broken butterflies…?"

One critic compared this effort to Dylan’s bare bones classic Time Out of Mind. I don’t think it works quite so well. Williams is an excellent and unique voice, and it is nice to hear an album that lets her whiskey-sour voice hold center stage. But it seems to me that some of these songs (with the exceptions of the title track and "Are You Down") haven’t quite become familiar enough territory for the band; the musicians’ work here is adequate, but I think after taking these songs on the road they’ll dig deeper and find richer directions to explore, giving Williams the music her voice deserves. While this quieter, more contemplative Williams doesn’t have as many songs you’ll find yourself singing as you sail along the road, it does offer us stories with more heart, deeper emotion, and perhaps more substantial hope. You’ll find yourself singing Car Wheels at the top of your lungs. These will sneak up on you, and you’ll whisper them under your breath.

Jeffrey Overstreet
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing., a magazine for Christian artists. He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com. 

Lucinda Williams follows Ryan Adams' Whiskeytown Swansong as the second album from the new Nashville label Lost Highway and, boy, has this label made another outrageously astonishing introduction. I've been a Lucinda Williams fan for many years, and this one has beaten out my every possible expectation. To be truthful I wasn't even too sure about the critically acclaimed and award winning, Car Wheel On a Gravel Road. It didn't have the cohesiveness of Sweet Old World. Cohesive is a word that Essence could be wrapped in. It holds together as a gentle, introspective, heartbreak of an album. It is the blues in feeling but think of Emmylou's Wrecking Ball as a soundcheck, and here is Essence.

Indeed, producer Charlie Sexton, a member of Bob Dylan's current band and an artist in his own right, if a little less meteorically so than the predictions once were, has given himself a whole new future in the stellar job he's done here. With his own guitar adding little edges to Bo Ramsey's masterful performance, we get a deep if minimalist accompaniment to Lucinda's voice that is assured as ever but cracks at times in the emotion of songs such as "Steal Your Love" and "Out of Touch". Lyrically, too, Williams is not wordy but the few she uses are with all the poetic economy of her poetic genes (her dad is a famous poet). She conjures the feelings of loss and loneliness with fresh emotional impact in a genre of music where we thought it had all been done.

And there is some sense of redemption. God pops up, and Lucinda wants to get right with Him. She is also looking for Christlike forgiveness in the closing "Broken Butterflies," where she concludes the piece by singing "And bleed the way Christ did, and fix the broken butterflies". Blood on the tracks indeed, and that blood bringing a sweet, ripe and costly victory.

Lost and yearning; tender and beautiful; love torn and spiritually redeemed; the yang to Ryan Adams yin.

Steve Stockman 7/15/2001


 
 

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster and a web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.
 
   
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