The first thing listeners will notice about Lucinda Williams's new album, Essence, is how dramatically it differs from her 1998 Grammy-winning classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The rich narratives and roadhouse swagger have given way to a starkly introspective sound that ranges from gentle repetition on "Lonely Girls" to the narcotic whisper of "Steal Your Love" and "Blue." It says something about Williams's fluency as a songwriter that she can pull this off as well as she does. Many reviews have appropriately compared Essence's ghostly atmospherics to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, but the comparison goes much further. Like Dylan's, Williams's cracked, drawn-out voice can pack more walloping emotion into a single note than many artists can muster in an entire song. From the wrenching, love-as-addiction tale of the title track to traditional country laments such as "Reason to Cry" and "Bus to Baton Rouge," Williams's music is suffused with the rawness of cold nights and lost loves. Even when she takes a different musical tack, as on the bluesy reggae of "Are You Down?," a tinge of desperation lingers at the edge of her voice. As any Williams fan can attest, she's at her best when mining the territory of relationships dramatically ended or ruminating on emptiness that accompanies faded human connections. Taken as a whole, Essence is as potent a reminder of this as Williams has yet produced.
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