God love the 48-year-old artist who continues to push herself to extremes. Whatever descriptions apply to Lucinda Williams' previous albums, the aptly titled "Essence" (due June 5 on Universal's new Lost Highway imprint) is even more so -- darker, leaner, rawer, sexier, sadder, more twisted through its depths of desire and obsession. It's a nervy progression, almost necessarily uneven because of the risks it takes, balancing a grace that soars toward aching perfection with an intimacy that elicits a squirmy discomfort.
With 1998's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," the uncompromising artist earned some commercial acceptance, scoring a gold record and winning a Grammy, while eliciting the sort of critical rapture once reserved for Williams' pantheon of inspirations (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters). The more radical "Essence" is likely to prove a tougher sell. It could well be her masterpiece, but it's an emotional mess of a masterpiece, one that finds her poking around in a psychosexual murk where other artists might be scared to get their hands dirty, singing to the world what most folks would be scared to whisper to themselves.
Take the title cut (also the album's first single and centerpiece), the boldest anthem she's ever recorded. Not merely because she sounds more like PJ Harvey than Emmylou Harris, over the rhythmic insistence of a sensual throb. And not merely because of lyrical explicitness such as "You're my drug, come on and let me taste your stuff," and "Please come find me and help me get fucked up."
No, the shock of "Essence" is that an artist so widely heralded as strong-willed, a fiercely feminist icon, should allow herself to sound so abjectly needy, so desperate in the throes of knee-knocking heat, so incomplete without a man. (I am woman, hear me pant.) The emotional investment she gives lines like "Kiss me hard/Let me wonder who's in charge" takes the sentiment so far beyond the pale of political correctness that she makes Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" sound like a love tap, while the bridge's bare-boned directness incongruously echoes Dr. Seuss. ("I am waiting here for more/I am waiting by your door ... /I am waiting in my car/I am waiting at this bar.")
Yet Williams is nobody's video love doll. "Essence" is less a song about seducing an object of desire than a song about lust's voracious hunger, an arousal so strong it all but obliterates that object. The aftermath of such ravaged urgency inevitably elicits one of those bittersweet songs so characteristic of Lucinda Williams, songs of leaving or being left, as the magnetism of mad abandon simply can't sustain itself. It's a song that strips away every last layer of protective bark from an impulse that will not be denied.
What "Tonight's the Night" was for Neil Young, "Broken English" for Marianne Faithfull -- maybe even "In Utero" for Nirvana -- "Essence" is for Williams. It isn't a pretty picture, but the power of her artistry has never proceeded from pretty. Throughout her career, she's been told that she could reap considerable dividends if she would tone down this and tidy up that. If she'd apply some eyeliner to the chorus and a little more polish to the arrangement, she could enjoy the sort of success with her songs that others have.
From Patty Loveless with "The Night's Too Long" and Mary Chapin Carpenter with "Passionate Kisses," through subsequent covers by Tom Petty ("Changed the Locks") and Emmylou Harris ("Crescent City"), other more mainstream artists have embraced her songs and smoothed them out. Even among some listeners who respond to her songwriting, there are those who resist her rough-hewn delivery -- the barbed wire with which she laces her hooks -- just as there were those who could appreciate early Bob Dylan only when sung by the likes of Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.
Few artists put such a tough core around such emotional fragility. Through each of her previously troubled recording projects, Williams has been as protective of her output as a lioness with her cubs, battling with record labels, producers, musicians, boyfriends (and bassists, so often a twofer slot in Williams' bands) in her single-minded devotion to the sanctity of her work. Yet the work itself reflects a vulnerability that few artists risk; the skin of her songs is so transparent that you can see right through to the singer's troubled heart. You start to question whether the greatest song is with the hurt that inspired it.
Even by Williams' uncompromising standards, "Essence" is a very different album from "Car Wheels" or her earlier efforts. Where her instinctive synthesis has consistently defied categorization -- finding a common denominator among blues, country, folk and rock, while falling through the cracks between them -- her sound here is off the roots-rock map. With the basic tracks providing subliminal support -- the atmospheric interplay less concerned with the notes than with the breathing spaces between -- co-producer Charlie Sexton fills the fringes of these arrangements with the sort of otherworldly loops and effects that so often distinguishes a Daniel Lanois soundscape.
As for the songs, where "Car Wheels" provided a musical travelogue of Williams' South, an evocation of how time and place shaped the singer's soul, "Essence" is more of an interior psychodrama. Only one of its songs, "Bus to Baton Rouge," supplies the sort of narrative detail that so often informs her writing; it sounds as if it could have been held from the previous album. The other cut that strikes the most familiar chord is "Reason to Cry," on the surface a roadhouse ready-made, a "ladies' choice" slow dance, which Williams invests with a lyric that cuts to the core: "When nothing makes any sense/You've got a reason to cry."
Fiction writers have long embraced Williams, the daughter of a poet, as a kindred spirit, partly because her writing is so devoid of writerly affectation. It's tough to write so simply, to render the complications of love and life in the plainest language possible. Distilling her art to its purest expression, the album-opening "Lonely Girls" could pass as a lullaby, though it's unlikely to elicit sweet dreams, as the singsong incantation seems to deepen the indelible melancholy.
"Steal Your Love" and "I Envy the Wind" spike the same vein of obsession as "Essence," with Williams' vocals somehow combining a childlike innocence with a feral hunger on the first, while her quavery tremble on the second leaves her voice as naked as an exposed nerve. The sort of raw immediacy that would make more polished singers cringe is plainly Williams' goal. On "Blue" the chamber strings of David Mansfield provide plaintive contrast to the singer's ravaged tremble, as Williams turns her bittersweet meditation into tone-poem testament.
"So go to confession/Whatever gets you through," she sings, her words without adornment, her voice shorn of refinement. "You can count your blessings/I just count on blue."
"Out of Touch" carries the album's only hint of pop buoyancy, though here again the prevailing mood is blue rather than bright. It's a song that sustains a perfect emotional pitch, as regret meets resignation over passage of time, the way of the world and the inevitability through which connections that once seemed crucial have somehow been squandered. Like so much of Williams' writing, it's a song so specific it could have come straight from her diary, yet so universal it encompasses everyone.
The first five songs are so tightly focused -- such a fully realized song cycle of longing and loss -- that the album's more eclectic second half can't help seeming scattershot by comparison. With its lazy rhymes and slang, the half-baked "Are You Down" barely bothers to pull itself together as a song, relying instead on the sinuous groove of keyboardist Reese Wynans and guitarist Bo Ramsey to insinuate itself beneath the listener's skin.
By contrast, "Get Right With God" burns as hot as "Essence," though the hellfire here is spiritual rather than sexual. Even Williams attempts to distance herself as she instructs the musicians to "Get da-own!" (in a caricature of a cracker accent), yet the intensity of the plain-spoken, guitar-driven prayer transcends parody. Sin and salvation aren't conceptual abstracts but palpably physical, and one is as likely to burn from the former as yearn for the latter.
Redemption arrives with the final cut, as "Broken Butterflies" takes poetic flight from all the earthbound verse preceding. This is Williams at her most ambitiously Dylanesque, finding divine inspiration in a hymn of bitterness in which the New Testament meets "Positively 4th Street." It offers a spellbinding close to an album that takes risks that few contemporary artists chance, from a songwriter who continually challenges her audience because she never stops challenging herself. Even if the rest of "Essence" weren't so powerfully unsettling, she could stake her claim to greatness on this song alone.