What would she do? That was the question for alt-country poetess Lucinda Williams after 1998's "Car Wheels On a Gravel Road" brought her mainstream recognition for the first time in her 20-year career. As it turns out, Williams has looked inward, eschewing "Car's" autobiographical celebration for the restrained minimalism of "Essence" -- a brilliant meditation on the tangled universal emotions of obsession, depression and lust.
From the Nico-inspired opener "Lonely Girls" to the album's jazzy arrangements, Williams whispers in your ear, purrs like a kitten and begs at your feet with her closely miked trembling twang. Like Nirvana's inconsistent "In Utero," "Essence" is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess that gets better with each listen.