Few singers are so adroit at etching wrenching emotional details into their music as Lucinda Williams--and few guitarists are so empathically gifted as Gurf Morlix, who accompanied Williams on Lucinda Williams (1988), Sweet Old World (1992), and her breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998). But Williams ditched Morlix (along with a sizable cast of other supporting players and producers) while making that record, and his absence on her new album, Essence (Lost Highway), is noticeable. She produced the album with Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton, and they arrived at a surprisingly quiet sound that suggests a less gauzy Daniel Lanois production job. Most of the 11 songs are slow to mid-tempo, the band cooks at a simmer, and Williams rarely raises her voice above a conversational level. She's also taken a stripped-down approach to the lyrics this time around--the words to the opener, "Lonely Girls," consist mostly of the title. The dynamic peaks and valleys and vivid scenes of previous records are here replaced by a concentrated hum and almost generic turns of phrase; Williams seems to be trying to cut her songs down to the bare bones. Without all the poignant tidbits, her expressions of debilitating desire look interchangeable on paper--but sung in her remarkable voice, they're subtly devastating. The title track may be a tired love-as-drug metaphor, but when she delivers the lines "Baby, sweet baby, can't get enough / Please come find me and help me get fucked up," you can practically hear her arching her back. I do miss Morlix, but the Mark Knopfler-like restraint of lead guitarist Bo Ramsey fits the mood, and Williams deserves credit for challenging herself. Monday, June 18, 8 PM, Skyline Stage, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand; 312-595-7437 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Swider.