Appropriately, for an album that is about the best and worst aspects of living as an adult, this year marks the ascent into legal adulthood of the brilliant and still devastating album Essence, from Lucinda Williams. So we’re due a toast.
This review may end with a major understatement, but there’s no missing the point that while many fans will (quite reasonably, and I would never argue with it because I too think it’s great) declare 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road as her finest work, for me 2001’s Essence gets to all my tender points, vulnerable areas and triggers.
Not surprisingly, it’s recommended. Here’s why.
Essence (Lost Highway/Universal)
CALLING A POP SONGWRITER A POET - be it Ira Gershwin, Bob Dylan or Paul Kelly - usually stretches both the point and the friendship. It's not that the best lyricists aren't capable of insight, craft and, well, lyricism, but that the words are part of a package with the music - reading them alone is giving you only half the picture.
Sometimes the best lyrics are barely there - a word or a phrase, not much on paper, but enough in the air. And, sometimes, the best songwriters know how to speak directly to our hearts better than all but the best poets. Lucinda Williams is one of those.
In I Envy The Wind, with her voice like a distant train on a still desert night, she draws out a sense of yearning against a lightly brushed musical backing. "I envy the rain/That falls on your face/That wets your eyelashes/And dampens your skin/And touches your tongue/And soaks through your shirt/And drips down your back".
By contrast, Blue says it simply ("Blue is the colour of night when the red sun disappears from the sky"), its emotion-cracked delivery combining the softness of a lover's hand and the sting of that hand being taken away.
These two songs are among an unusual introduction for Williams, particularly for those who may only have discovered her with the last album, the busy Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. For the first half of Essence the tempo is pulled right back and consists of ballads about near misses and moody numbers such as Are You Down that keep an eye looking forward ("Can't put the rain back in the sky once it falls down/don't cry").
The turning point is the title track, a classic Williams song of lust to match Hot Blood or Right In Time.
With a Tom Petty-like squealing guitar line leading the way, she half growls, half implores her lover: "Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name/Shoot your love into my vein ... I am waiting for your essence.".
From then on we get a bit more straightforward country with the back porch ballad Reason To Cry, a folkie road song, Bus To Baton Rouge and the heel-and-toe chugging blues of Get Right With God. Then, to remind us about where we came in, Williams finishes with Broken Butterflies, a heartbreaking, atmospheric song that is part Dylan and part Neil Finn.
As with Blue and I Envy The Wind, the backing is low key, more mood than imposition, and Williams, with a catch in her throat that makes the back of the neck tingle, sings: "Choking on your unplanned words/Coughing up your lies/Tumbling from your mouth a flurry/Of broken butterflies."
This album is rather good.