Lucinda Williams
w/ Jim Lauderdale

Sun July 22 at Pier 62/63, $33.

In 1998, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album of surpassing beauty that is now, only a few years later, generally regarded as a masterpiece of execution and intent. The purity and heartbreaking integrity of Williams' vision on Car Wheels is stunning. The music is timeless and universal; like all great art, it transcends the classifications of its own genre. Over half a decade in the making, the album represents a labor of precise, passionate, and sometimes excruciating love for the formal orthodoxy and chiseled poetry of old-fashioned country music, and the slow-burn effort to get everything just right is evident on every track.

Williams, a legendary perfectionist in the studio, risked overkill to capture the music she heard chiming in her inner ear. She tried, and tried again, alienating a succession of frustrated producers. And, as though her multiple efforts at recording exacted a kind of inverted alchemy on her material, Williams finally arrived at the unadulterated essence of her talent. The layers are magically stripped away, revealing a shimmering core.

The music of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road displays a gorgeous economy as every instrument winds, lush and pure, through empty space. And Williams' lyrics are the sparest of poetry, full of piercing imagery and emotional concision. It is Williams' voice, however, that ultimately pulls it all together: Always out front in their crackling, wavering fragility, Williams' vocals locate strength in vulnerability, threatening collapse as they weave together a narrative of desire, loneliness, and loss. The sense of whispering intimacy Williams achieves in her singing is amazing. Every song is made intensely personal, filled with the honesty, hurt, and hope of a late-night conversation between old friends.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the most accomplished, artistically coherent and emotionally realized album Lucinda Williams will ever make. Listening to it now, one feels that absolutely nothing could be added or taken away to make it one jot better.

It was the great French poet Charles Baudelaire, I think, who said that the work of any particular artist is cursed by whatever has come just before it. Every successive thing an artist does is judged, not independently and on its own merits and within its own parameters, but rather in terms of what that artist did the last time around. Audiences are essentially conservative and fairly unimaginative: They want the same thing, over and over again, and they require nothing more for their entertainment than that their beloved artists repeat themselves ad nauseam. This might explain why sellouts get richer and richer, and why Herman Melville died a pauper.

The logic of Baudelaire's maxim, if you accept even part of it, would dictate that Williams, for the sake of her career, could do no better than to follow her brilliant, critically acclaimed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album with a die-cast sequel, minus the extended waiting period. The record could be titled Tire Tracks through the Front Yard. It would be chock full of the kind of ruminative, memoirish ballads that fueled her last effort. Economy of execution would rival the sparse lyricism, the honed metaphors that evoke dusty back lanes and Podunk juke joints. Fans would fall in love once again with all those meditative songs that revolve on countrified place-names like "Lake Charles" and "Greenville."

Think again. On her new album, Essence, Williams takes leave of the psychological geography and narrative remembrances of Car Wheels, choosing instead to explore the aura and immediacy of a given emotion, usually love or its absence. In keeping with the obsessive nature of the material, the music is heavily groove-oriented--by turns hypnotic, repetitive, lulling, or brutalizing. Williams seems to draw heavily on the style of Nick Drake; she circles the exposed nerves of pain and joy, attempting through the grace of a simple lullaby to conjure its essential meaning. On the song "Lonely Girls," a mere six couplets are repeated, mantra-like, over a gently strummed guitar until at last a single, powerful vision emerges. The simple lines unlock a universe of feeling.

Critics have been all too eager to point out that Williams' songwriting isn't up to snuff this time around; that she falls short of the sheer poetic and musical inventiveness of Car Wheels. And, it must be granted, her lyrical haikus are not always successful. The music, in its reliance on pocket-heavy grooves and repetition, is naturally less forceful than that of her previous work. Yet in the rush to rub Williams' nose in her own clichés, too many folks have neglected the fact that Essence sounds fucking great. It's a deeply beautiful album, full of mood and attitude. Williams' voice has never been more evocative, or more capable of registering the sentimental turmoil of longing.

I'll take three more albums this good over another six-year hiatus any goddamned day.