Less specific but more pop-oriented and diverse than her previous effort, 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams's new album is a hit-and-miss affair. Fueled by constant craving, a Tom Petty sound, and some of Williams's most rueful words, its key problems are pacing and lyrics that seem far more generic than those on the more vernacular, more streetwise Car Wheels. While the best songs on Essence are fine, the album doesn't quite hold together. Produced by Williams and Austin guitar hotshot Charlie Sexton to showcase Williams's endearingly shopworn voice and precise, understated guitar, Essence is long on lustfulness and regret. The title track is one of the sexiest songs Williams ever wrote. Ominous, even predatory, it suggests a woman on the prowl for abandonment and desire. Like the equally addictive "Steal Your Love," it portrays a woman eager to not only be fucked, but to get "fucked up." Those tunes, along with the lyrically trickier and more overtly upbeat "Get Right With God," are the album's strongest. And even they are compromised by the sequencing.
There are simply too many slow songs here, making "Steal Your Love," "Essence," and "Get Right" unintentionally startling. Fortunately, Williams's lyrics are often touching, even penetrating. The dreamy "Lonely Girls" is a sad, homespun haiku; "Broken Butterflies" is a gorgeous metaphorical necklace about breakup; and "I Envy the Wind," despite a melody that fails to develop, is plush and pretty. The one tune rooted in biography more than groove is the ethereal, intimate "Bus to Baton Rouge," Williams's incandescent tour of childhood memory. Overall, the album scans beautifully, sounds good, and rings emotionally true. If it rocked a bit more, it would be undeniable. As is, it's merely memorable.