After toiling in relative obscurity and then in the partial shade of cultish appreciation, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams bowled over most of the known rock universe with 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Her unique strengths — elliptical but evocative song-stories, distanced vocals and naked emotions, and a not-quite-country lilt and twang — had been manifest since she began making records in the late Seventies, but Car Wheels found Williams at her ripest, with her hair all mussed and not a note or observation out of place.
No doubt all eyes are on Williams for this follow-up recording, since it is competing with an artistic apotheosis of sorts — the kind that an artist like the hard-working Williams is expected to be grateful for. Fortunately, she's also a little pretentious and thus unlikely to be poleaxed by a high level of acclaim. In fact, Essence finds Williams returning to the willful intimacy of her earliest records. Laid-back, rock-ish and small in scale, Essence never achieves grandeur but won't particularly alienate the fan for whom her wonders small and large are equally magical. There is a certain plangent cruelty in the breakup song "Are You Down?" — it fully expresses a stoic dumping within a lyrical wisp, and the arrangement has a weird island flavor that detaches the track's message from the emotions it excites. "I Envy the Wind" is a lightly glossed blues that would have been dramatically torch-ified by a lesser singer, but it's just right as is — a mansion built of toothpicks, the sparkling arrangement and Williams' front-and-center vocals achieving a sorrowful resonance on a par with her beautiful Crescent City. Williams can make something elegantly spare out of a simple housedress of a song, as on the walkin'-the-road country of "Reason to Cry," which conjures up George Jones at his least theatrical.
But size does matter on slightly drippy slow songs like "Blue," which sounds like it's moving slower than the singer wants, or on the repetitive kickoff number, "Lonely Girls." Williams' voice can't always sustain its yearning tone during long stretches; she has stamina but not resilience, and it throws a harsh light on the iffy scanning in her songwriting that is one of its chief charms and flaws. You don't really believe that she wants to "Get Right With God," a process she describes in lurid Southern terms that need Gillian Welch's amiability to pull off. Nor does Essence ring any erotic alarm bells, unlike the wide-eyed, transported Williams on Car Wheels' "Right in Time." Essence is spotty and sweet, winningly imperfect and often striking. But Williams doesn't secure any kind of emotional or narrative center for the album, and that's a sizable omission coming from as earthy a visionary as country music can claim.