An Essence Rare

The daring, uncompromising art of singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams

This much was clear: She wasn't coming back on her own. "Where's Lu?" a woman, apparently a manager, was asking. "We're late." Lu was last seen standing behind the outdoor stage, just after the rain had soaked the Laclede's Landing parking lot, flipping through a thick black binder of song lyrics, taking sheets out, putting them back in, while the band looked nervous and stalled by tuning yet again. "Are you ready, Lu?" the woman asked. "I have to go to the bathroom," Lu said. They looked over at the line of Johnny-on-the-Spots. "No way," Lu said. She closed the binder and headed out the back of the lot, toward a bar.

Fifteen minutes later, she returned, hustled along by her manager, chain belt swinging from her leather pants, and she was smiling. The crowd had gathered close to the stage for the last performer of the Big Muddy Music Festival, and when she began with "Pineola," a song about a funeral for a poet -- no songwriter alive has been so obsessed, or written so well, about the death of friends -- the spell she cast with her voice soaked the evening in aching grace. She didn't need the songbook sitting at her feet.

So much has been written about the neurotic, bad-boy-loving, obsessive-compulsive, let's-do-just-one-more-take Lucinda Williams -- evidently it's fine for male artists to be eccentric perfectionists, but not female artists -- that the above story is not intended to add to the mystique of a woman once dubbed a "white-trash goddess." Williams is an artist, one of the best we have, because she is uncompromising in the manner in which she lays bare her afflictions and enchantments, whether it's the suicide of a friend or lust-filled masturbation, and because in her songs and voice we get as close to what it means to be alive as we might dare to come.

Her new album, Essence, with its colorized zinnias on the cover and the message "GET RIGHT WITH GOD" painted on a cross inside, is the record no one expected Lucinda Williams to make. The record is all images snatched in the heat of fresh discoveries, obsessions repeated in words spoken in a fever-dream, a spare and sometimes naive lyricism and slow-as-downers, acoustic-soul groove, the kind of folk music Joni Mitchell might make if she had the sense to work with musicians such as Charlie Sexton and Bo Ramsey. When asked who she'd like to record with, Williams invariably answers, "Whoever is in Bob Dylan's band." Done. Bassist Tony Garnier and Sexton, both full-time members of Dylan's Never Ending Tour, and Ramsey, probably the only guitarist today who has truly inherited the Dionysian blues of Dylan's two best guitarists, Robbie Robertson and Mike Bloomfield, dominate the soundscapes of Essence. Add in former Dylan sidemen David Mansfield and Jim Keltner, and you have Williams' version of the thin wild mercury sound: a lonesome, sparkle-drenched mood that seems less played than sighed and moaned around her. That lingering, sensual radiance is rarely broken, and only twice: to find God in the kiss of a serpent, to find God in the kiss of a man.

Williams' previous album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was an album of real memories, people and, above all, places. "Greenville," "Jackson" and "Lake Charles" were the album's soul. What's striking about Essenceis how unplaced and unpopulated it is: When she sang about a juke joint in "2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten" -- another ode to place from Car Wheels-- that juke joint was as real as Louisiana or Mississippi. Now she sings of a jukebox to be played just to "see what a quarter can do," and those 45's only spin in the reverie of her imagination. On "Bus to Baton Rouge," she returns to a precise address on Belmont Avenue, and all the details of a deeply lived-in place -- the honeysuckle, the fig tree and a driveway covered in "tiny white seashells" -- flood forth, just long enough to remind her of "these chains inside/hidden deep down in my soul." The essence of Essence lies in the images, emotions and needs planted deep down inside a woman; the album's triumph is in finding just the right words and music to plant them inside the listener as well. Much has been made of how quickly -- six weeks -- her sixth album was completed. But there's no point in polishing a slow-burning flame; over time, Essence may prove to offer the most inexhaustible heat of all her work.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Williams is an uneven, distant performer. In the end, she's not a performer at all. She just sings, as she would alone in her house or in a car moving down an empty highway, and at times she seems to be singing past the audience, as if afraid to get close to those who know and love every song. Her remoteness onstage is like Davis' or Dylan's: With music that comes from so vulnerable and true a place, all the artist can do is be true to it and let it tell its own story. Williams' current touring band -- including Ramsey and Doug Pettibone on guitars and Nashville veteran Don Heffington on drums -- is the best she's ever had. Her current set is dominated by material from her two most recent albums, and whether the febrile beauty of her new songs will survive the unforgiving cavern of the Pageant is unclear. If any can, the songs of Lucinda Williams will.

 
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