It is great to see Lucinda putting out a new album just a couple of years after her last offering, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. For her, that's cranking 'em out. It took over five years for Car Wheels to reach the stores, during which time Lucinda reportedly put at least three albums on tape, all with different producers, only to reject them before they could be issued. An insecure perfectionist, I guess -- but I would surely love to have bootlegs of those rejects. Oh well...
The rap on why Lucinda does not get much airplay is typically that she is "too country for rock, too rock for country." There's something to that all right, but I would add "too electric for folk" and, more to the point, "too honest and personal for commercial radio." In both her songwriting and her singing, Lucinda offers emotionally naked, direct communication with her listener. For me, she's at the top of a short list of "truth tellers" -- artists who reveal themselves without artifice or pretension and speak to the heart. Some others on that list are Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch.
Essence marks a radical -- and welcome -- change from Car Wheels. That record featured great songs, but the arrangements were very rock 'n roll. The band, which featured two electric guitarists, was just too damned loud! It worked OK on CD, but when I saw Lucinda live at the time her voice sounded strained and used up -- which I blamed on her trying to sing over that noisy band.
The songs on Essence are different too. Absent are the Southern Gothic narratives and portraits normally present on her records. Essence is the most intimate and personal album she has ever made. The title is perfect, because what Lucinda does here is to strip music, lyrics and vocals down to the bare essence of the idea that drives the song -- longing, lust, regret, memory (OK, she's not the bubbliest gal around). No one can convey the ache of loss more poignantly. For instance, listen to Emmylou Harris and Lucinda on Lucinda's song "Sweet Old World," written to a friend who committed suicide. Emmylou's version is beautiful and sensitive, as you would expect. Lucinda simply breaks your heart.
The tasty arrangements are mixed down to feature the voice, and the clean, simple engineering is right on target. The first six songs are all slow and intimately intense; not until the title song do we get even a medium-tempo and solid backbeat. But my attention never wanders. Lucinda's perceptive lyrics and vocals keep me riveted from start to finish. This is art concealing art; Lucinda's vocabulary is plain as can be, but she is blessed with the poet's gift for metaphor. I am resisting the impulse to quote from the lyrics, because they are best experienced in Lucinda's unique voice. I urgently recommend this album for grown-ups; fans of Brittany Spears won't much like it.