Lucinda Williams specializes in rough edges—an artistic bent that may explain why it’s taken her so long to build an audience beyond the music obsessives and industry luminaries who’ve admired her from the get-go. Though she’s been making terrific records since 1979, and though other artists have recorded and even had hits with her songs, Williams’ own breakthrough didn’t come until 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a disc that was widely (and accurately) heralded as a masterpiece when it was released. That’s nothing new for the Louisiana-born Williams; nearly every record she’s ever made has gotten a similar reception. Typically, the tastemakers opine in their purplest prose, and the listening public…well, listens to something else.

But not with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which earned the singer both a Grammy and her first gold record. More important, the famously fragile Williams also emerged from a haze of perfectionist self-doubt on the album, finally coming into her own as both a singer and a songwriter, perhaps the best America has to offer. With assists from both Steve Earle, who co-produced, and Rick Rubin, who mixed, Williams presented a favorite-leather-jacket of a voice, cracked in all the right places and wrapped warmly around each of the LP’s 13 tracks. The record showcased Williams’ newly fine-tuned gift for evocative detail, too, shaping the particular world she’d always conjured (a low-rent and rural American South) into something universal, weighted with significance for just about anyone who cared to listen. As usual, the LP featured some well-crafted elegies, another one of Williams’ commercial-suicide specialties. But instant standards such as the oddly defiant “Drunken Angel” and the more resigned “Lake Charles” were among the best things she’d ever recorded, highlighting the singer’s talent for poignant, lovingly drawn character studies that mourn in heart-rending detail.

The whole album wasn’t a sobfest, though. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was Williams’ masterpiece, after all, so the singer also included some of her finest rockers. The forceful, hook-laden title track represented a musical departure for Williams, an unabashed (though typically reflective) radio-pop song with crunching guitars, a biting main riff, and a chorus that might resuscitate R.E.M., if the group were smart enough to cover the song—or at least rip it off. By the album’s close, though, Williams got back to what she does best, leaving her burgeoning audience with the plaintive “Jackson,” an aching rewrite of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (minus the Glen Campbell cheese) that borrowed the melody of “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and forgot to give it back. It’s all powerful stuff. I’m turning purple just writing about it.

Nearly three years out, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road still casts a long shadow in the world of alt-country’s honky-tonk divas, one that artists such as Kelly Willis, Kasey Chambers, and the great Iris Dement (who’s way overdue for her breakthrough) must have to reckon with, both aurally and spiritually, every time they enter the recording studio. In fact, on the new Essence, even Williams herself doesn’t try to step out of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’s shadow, choosing instead to offer a more somber meditation on the themes with which her earlier album was also preoccupied—sex, death, and the torturous pleasures of backsliding Christianity. You know, small stuff like that.

So the difference between Essence and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (or any of Williams’ earlier records, really) isn’t thematic: Lyrically, she’s still singing the country-soul blues with all the conviction of a tent-revival convert. This time out, though, Williams tones down the twang, turning in another predictably fine album—albeit one whose arrangements and production values have much more in common with a record by, say, Tom Petty, than one by Tom T. Hall.

“Lonely Girls,” the album’s lilting opener, sets the pensive musical tone that Essence only rarely deviates from, with Williams’ voice laced through warm splashes of Hammond organ and gently strummed acoustic guitars. The mesmerizing “Steal Your Love” follows suit, with Williams’ band building an atmospheric miniepic out of the same two chords and skittering drum pattern that made “Don’t Come Around Here No More” sound so great on the radio. “I don’t need a knife/I don’t need a gun,” Williams sings seductively over her band’s hypnotic cadence—”I know how to steal your love.” Elsewhere, Williams is in a darker mood, checking in with minor-key laments (the heartbreaking “I Envy the Wind”) and gorgeous ballads (“Blue”). “Go find a jukebox/And see what a quarter will do,” she sings in the latter track’s opening line, sounding both impossibly lost and impossibly hopeful. Throughout the disc, Williams subtly adjusts her songwriting tack to match the record’s adult-alternative production strategy, zeroing in on casually suggestive hooks rather than the big, telegraphed showstoppers that powered earlier tracks such as the wistful country-rocker “Big Red Sun Blues” or the blues romp “Changed the Locks” or the soulful twangfest “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” a personal favorite from—you guessed it—Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Essence also ups the ante on Williams’ penchant for sexual frankness. Earlier, the singer gave us the blush-worthy “Right in Time,” the catchiest, most literate letter to Penthouse Forum you’re ever likely to hear. That song found Williams lying on her back, moaning at the ceiling, and thinking about her lover’s “long ride.” The new LP’s bluesy title track (and its first single, in an edited version) picks up where “Right in Time” left off but gets even more hot and bothered, with the singer teasing all the lyrical potential out of a well-wrought drug metaphor. Might as well face it, boys, Williams is addicted to love—and to lust: “Baby, sweet baby/Whisper my name,” she sings breathlessly to her lover, “Shoot your love”—and then there’s a long, death-defying, and decidedly NC-17 pause before she heads back to barely-veiled-metaphor land with “into my vein.” If this is what Carlene Carter meant by “putting the cunt back in country,” we’re all the better for it, believe me.

Except that Essence isn’t especially country. Country-inflected? Sure. Country-influenced? Yep—it is a Lucinda Williams album, after all. But Essence signifies mainly as a soulful folk-rock record, moodier and more brooding than the singer’s earlier work but also more radio-friendly. Williams doesn’t even uncork the record’s only unabashed country foot-stomper (the gospel rave-up “Get Right With God”) until Track 9—a new record for her.

So, to ask the inevitable question that plagues all masterpiece follow-ups: Is this one a masterpiece, too? Well…we’ll see. The album does come with at least a handful of songs that are among Williams’ finest, but it also includes “Are You Down,” a meandering 5:24 jam that even adult-alternative kingpin Daniel Lanois would probably blow the whistle on. With her track record, though, Williams has more than earned the right to indulge in a little studio improvising; it may even be a healthy sign that the singer (who’s released just six albums in 22 years) is feeling a little looser these days, more confident in her abilities and her amazingly supple voice, which should be protected as a natural resource. Essence may be less ambitious than its predecessor—it’s more casually great than deliberately epic—but the album is clearly a worthy successor to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—which may mean it’s a masterpiece after all. CP

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