Don't be fooled by the explosion of orange marigolds and pink zinnias on the album's cover. They might suggest the kitschy fun of an Arkansas wedding, but on Essence, the newest effort by Lucinda Williams, the honeymoon is decidedly over.
It turns out that's not necessarily a bad thing. While her previous album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is full of gritty bravado, the mood slows to a painful heart-tug on Essence. Co-produced by Charlie Sexton (who plays guitar and piano on most of the tracks), the album feels a little like drinking wine out of the only clean glass in the house. It might be a chipped aluminum tumbler, but it's clean, and dammit, you need the wine. The heartache, longing and lust in these tunes, all penned by Williams, goes down easy, and by the second or third song, you're craving another. "Steal Your Love" is a delicious beckoning, followed by the pagan lament of "I Envy the Wind." In fact, if there's one thing that can be counted on here, it's the seductive power of sadness. On "Blue," it comes in the sudden nightshade blossoming of violin and viola; on "Bus to Baton Rouge," it's a return to a house on cinderblocks and a "company couch covered in plastic." Not all the songs are sad, however. "Get Right with God" is a fire-and-brimstone rouser and "Reason to Cry" is a nice slow dance around the shadowy perimeters of a honky-tonk.