Time Capsule: Lucinda Williams, Essence

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting an album that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we look back at Essence, the Grammy-winning 2001 album that followed Williams’ magnum opus Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.

Music Reviews Lucinda Williams
Time Capsule: Lucinda Williams, Essence

Writing the follow-up album to a critical or commercial blockbuster must be one of the most daunting quests in music. No matter how sharp the new album is, it will be compared to its predecessor in the immediate aftermath of its release and also probably until the end of time. Even if it is deemed as good, it’s unlikely to measure up to that masterwork in the eyes of the listening public. The follow-up, in this case the successor to Lucinda Williams’ 1998 best-selling classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, can never be evaluated in a world without its star older sibling, so it’s doomed to become second-rate.

Now that it’s been more than 20 years since its release in 2001, and it has plenty of descendants of its own, Essence sounds a lot like a masterpiece, too. If Essence was the first album you ever heard by Lucinda Williams, you might have a very different idea of her style compared to someone who first heard her 1979 debut Ramblin’ On My Mind or the Southern gothic rock of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road or even her more recent and noisy releases, like 2020’s Good Souls Better Angels.

But you would know right away who this artist is and what she is about. It’s an album of enormous character, and, while the subject matter occasionally breaks from what had been Williams’ usual themes up until that point, it’s obvious it was created with the same genius. Today it’s not only a vital part of her 15-album catalog—which runs the gamut of invigorated protest folk-rock to mellow singer-songwriter fare—but also a fascinating parcel of songs that are sexy, mischievous, grotesque and gut-wrenching all on their own. It’s where the immediacy of pop meets the grit of Americana, and where Lucinda Williams met the most tender parts of herself.

Essence is often considered to be Williams’ “pop” album, but it doesn’t share many traits with “pop” music—at least not in the genre sense. There aren’t any build-ups to big hooks or catchy bridges, nor are there any sugar-coated production elements, synths or otherwise. But like many beloved pop LPs, Essence has simple but perfect melodies. When the opening track’s sorrowful locomotive of acoustic guitar starts up, my heart catches for a moment because it’s so powerful even though it lacks all the usual fanfare of a hit. Like many songs on Essence, its form is closer to that of a poem than a typical country song. There are only a handful of lyrics, most of them “Lonely girls” or “Sweet sad songs.” But it never feels like droning on. It’s meditative. And when Williams finally breaks up the repetition to admit “I oughta know about lonely girls,” the release is similar to that of a pop song payoff.

Critics at the time of Essence’s release cast Williams as a sort of dark angel of pop country. At its core, Essence is an album of love and lust songs, but it can also be menacing as well as sad. In a Salon review, author and professor Don McLeese characterized Essence as “darker, leaner, rawer, sexier, sadder, [and] more twisted through its depths of desire and obsession” than her previous albums. Natalie Nichols wrote in a blurb for the Los Angeles Times that “when Williams’ utterly naked voice bleeds all over such ballads as ‘Bus to Baton Rouge,’ you’d need the hardest of hearts to keep the tears from your eyes.” And for Spin, Eric Weisbard likened “I Envy The Wind” to the “craggy and gorgeous” Texas rock of Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Twisted, bloody, gorgeous—all three perfect descriptors for an album that often can’t decide whether love is deadly or life-giving. On the title track, Williams likens love to a drug. This was neither the first nor last time an artist used this metaphor, but it just sounds extra gnarly when Williams does it: “Baby, sweet baby / I wanna feel your breath…can’t get enough / Please come find me and help me get fucked up.” But as quickly as she can conjure images of love-as-heroin coursing through veins, Williams can slip into a silky countrypolitan costume, as on the dusty lullaby “Blue.” Don’t let Williams’ soprano fool you, though. There’s still a dark current running underneath: “When the red sun disappears from the sky,” she sings,” Raven feathers shiny and black / A touch of blue glistening down her back.”

It’s every bit as captivating, but Essence was considered imperfect compared to Car Wheels. It’s easy to wonder now if some of the skepticism around Essence was due to the fact that Williams made the switch from shadowy blues-infused country—a style that is still to this day dominated by men—and steely narratives to more delicate vocals and stereotypically feminine topics. Car Wheels has its share of love songs, but Essence feels more holistically reinforced in female energy. The album cover itself is an overly saturated photo of a neon-pink flower. It’s one of those images that feels synonymous with the music. It’s pretty, but shocking. If you look at the pink flower and its orange bouquet mates long enough, it becomes too harsh for the eyes. The songs on Essence are both gentle and intense.

Romance is oftentimes a mix of those two sensations. But the perception of romantic songs hasn’t always been so non-binary. When men write songs about longing it’s called unrequited love, but when women do it, it’s desperation. Thankfully, we know better than to cast that accusation today and can see songs for more than the gender stereotypes they might emit. Love songs are love songs, and Lucinda Williams is one of the best ever at writing them. Love burned hot on her 1988 self-titled album, in which she sang of ignoring her friends’ advice and driving all night long to see a lover because “I just wanted to see you so bad.” Love takes a softer shape on Essence’s “I Envy The Wind,” but with just as much passion, maybe more because of how intimate it is: “I envy the sun / That brightens your body / And holds you in her heat / That makes your days longer.” Again, poetry.

While it’s not necessarily dominating the charts, this kind of lush songwriting still shows up all over the place in indie rock today. Williams’ most notable disciple is perhaps Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, the Alabama-born artist who has long made her admiration for Williams known and shares both her raspy singing style and gift for evocative storytelling. In 2020, Crutchfield and Williams interviewed each other. On this year’s “Lone Star Lake,” a track that if sung by Williams would sound right at home on Essence, Crutchfield sings, “My heart sinks in the orange and pink / And I call you by your last name / I’ll kiss you like a fever dream companion / Ancient history.” And in 2023, Williams collaborated with both Angel Olsen and Margo Price, two other occasionally alt-country artists who have released their share of songs both searing and vulnerable.

Williams hasn’t quit writing yet (her 15th album was released last year, she’s heading back out on tour this summer, and she’s promised “another album” soon) but she already has a legacy. Traces of Williams’ style can be heard in scores of artists who describe their music with words like Americana, alt-country and southern rock. We can throw around other synonyms until the cows come home, but like many albums written by Nashville nonconformists, Essence defies categorization. Some of the best albums in the history of pop and country are blurry like that. Essence may never have the lore or velocity in culture that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road has, but to those who know and treasure her music, it’s forever a Lucinda Williams masterpiece.

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a full-time editor and part-time writer. You can find her in Atlanta, or rewatching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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