Never mind that Lucinda Williams' new album Essence is one of the year's most acclaimed releases. The fact that the 11-song collection exists at all is an impressive achievement, considering Williams' reputation as a perfectionist who tends to linger long over her songwriting and studio work. Indeed, the much-traveled Louisiana-born artist - whom Time magazine recently hailed as "America's Best Songwriter" - has released only six albums in her 22-year recording career.
The fact that Essence follows Williams's previous album, the long-in-the-works Grammy-winning Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, by a mere three years seems to be as much of a surprise to Williams as it is to her fans. As she recently told New York's Daily News, "I was worried about it a little bit, like, what's wrong with this picture? I came up with 14 new songs in a two-month period and I've never done that before. I kept wondering if maybe I had to go back to the drawing board."
Where Car Wheels abounded with Williams's sort of vivid, richly detailed character studies that first won her a rabidly devoted cult following, new songs like "Are You Down," "Reason to Cry," "Lonely Girls" and "Steal Your Love" are intimate, lyrically spare first-person evocations of loss, heartbreak and obsession. "This album was an experiment in breaking from long narratives and feeling comfortable with simplicity," Williams stated in an interview with Newsweek.
As Williams told Spin magazine, Essence's songs were largely inspired by "the breakup of a relationship. It kind of opened things up. . . . I'm always writing in my head. A lot of stuff goes in there and just stays in my subconscious, and then I have to be in a certain frame of mind when I'm writing."
Williams has also said that the album's pared-down songwriting approach was partially inspired by Bob Dylan's seminal 1998 comeback Time Out of Mind. "It's just a different approach to the writing. It's more about the groove and the melody, and everything's a lot more sparse," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It was real liberating for me to get to that place with these new songs, because at first I was kind of questioning it. Like 'Are You Down.' Four little bitty verses that I then repeat. My first thought was, 'Well, this is a good idea for a song, but I have to fill it in.' And somehow I got to this place where I just went, 'You know, this is cool like it is. I'm just gonna let it go'."