The rap on why Lucinda Williams does not get much airplay is "too country for rock, too rock for country." There is something to that, but I would add "too electric for folk" and, more to the point, "too honest and personal for commercial radio." In both songwriting and singing, Lucinda offers emotionally naked, direct communication with her listener.
Essence is missing the Southern Gothic narratives and character portraits her old fans have grown to expect. Essence is the most intimate album she has ever made. The title is perfect, because Lucinda strips arrangements, lyrics and vocals down to the bare essential of each song -- longing, lust, regret, memory. (OK, she's not the bubbliest gal around.) No one conveys the ache of loss more poignantly. For instance, listen to Emmylou Harris and men Lucinda sing Lucinda's song "Sweet Old World," written about a friend who committed suicide. Emmylou's version is, expectably, beautiful and sensitive. 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 a solid backbeat. But the perceptive lyrics and vocals are riveting from start to finish. This is art concealing art -- her vocabulary is plain as can be, but Lucinda is blessed with the poet's gift for metaphor. I'm resisting the impulse to quote from the lyrics, because they are best experienced in Lucinda's unique voice. I urgently recommend this album for grownups; Brittany Spears fans probably won't much like it.
Sound Quality: 92