Prior to 1998, Lucinda Williams was a respected, critical and cult fave, best known for penning Mary Chapin Carpenter's mega-hit “Passionate Kisses.” But with the release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that year, Williams finally made a name all for herself.
The disc, which Williams spent five years working on, went gold, earned her Grammy and was all but universally acclaimed as a masterpiece.
This follow-up took less than a year's time to complete, but it's another first-rate effort from the Louisiana-born, Nashville-based songwriter.
It's a more musical album than Car Wheels, as Williams often gives her band just the right room to move. Of particular note is “Are You Down,” which rides on Reese Wynans' Hammond B3 organ grooves and Bo Ramsey's guitar bursts, a combination that recalls a little bit of The Doors and a little bit of The Allman Brothers.
Stylistically, it's a varied set, linked by Williams' slight rasp and world-weary Southern drawl. The mood is often subdued, typified by the gorgeous, appropriately titled Blue and the quiet, country waltz feel of “Bus to Baton Rouge,” which features harmonies by Jim Lauderdale and Joy Lynn White. However, as engaging as those moments can be, the abundance of solitude is a drawback here. It's five songs into the album before Williams' true grit kicks in on “Out of Touch” and not until the title track does she hitch onto an absolutely irresistible groove that's both harrowing and erotic.
All in all, Essence doesn't match Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but then again, there aren't many albums that do. It's a low-key, yet very respectable follow-up, with no concessions to those who thought she might be shooting for a more commercial sound this time out.