"I took a bus to Baton Rouge," Lucinda Williams croons lazily near the end of her new album, inadvertently putting her finger on the problem: Essence drifts by like lonesome miles spent staring out a bus window, a journey perhaps pleasant and comforting at the outset but boring and monotonous as the miles turn into hours. In Williams's case the bus was probably on a tour, and the miles were likely logged while she traveled from city to city to help spin her rewarding previous album, 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, into gold. What Essence lacks that Car Wheels had in spades is diversity in tempo. All the new songs save two are so slow and melancholy that they pass by like so many mile markers in Williams's beloved rural South.
A listener can easily imagine Williams gazing out the window of her tour bus, mindlessly strumming an acoustic guitar riff that she eventually attached words to and shaped into a song. And you'd have to figure the bus kept to the windswept outskirts, never passing through a bustling city center that might have inspired something a bit livelier.
Loneliness is a pervading lyrical theme on Essence, maybe another byproduct of her earlier success. Most of these songs have a sad beauty in their spare acoustic arrangements. But too much of a good thing is still too much. One would think a restless spirit like Williams would become bored by the sameness of these songs. Hell, in her 22-year recording career, this is her sixth album on her fifth label. She must recognize change is good. Not until the ninth track, "Get Right with God," does the pace rise above a somber shuffle, and her spoken promise to "get down," which precedes the song, indicates Williams at least realizes things have gotten a bit dull. Other than that, only the outstanding title track lifts Essence from its doldrums when it sets a bracing melody against a dirgelike, electric-guitar pattern.
Where is the boisterous "Drunken Angel" or the frolicking "Joy" that helped make Car Wheels such a pleasure to listen to, even for the non-country-lovin' fan? Perhaps it left with Steve Earle, who played a strong supporting role on that album but is replaced here by Charlie Sexton, a hotshot Austin guitar slinger. Relentless melancholy is ultimately sad and disappointing, and this album is ultimately just sadly disappointing.
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