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Critical reaction to Essence has ranged from glowing to generally positive, with only a smattering of gender-issue questions regarding lines like, "Kiss me hard/Make me wonder who's in charge." Williams says she mostly hears from people who've rekindled romances or connected with new loves through listening to the record. She finds the responses are often as personal as the CD's material--with some curiosities thrown into the mix.
"I had this one interviewer guy, I think he was in Germany, and you know how Europeans are, they're much more direct about this kinda stuff," she says. "And he asked, 'Were you lying down in bed when you did these vocals? Did you have the microphone in bed with you?' He was like, 'Theez eeez a horny record.' I'm telling ya, the reaction has just been hilarious."
When not evoking images of orgasmic liaisons with microphones, Essence carries a moody introspection extended by long guitar lines that shimmer and float above the melodies. Think Neil Young's Tonight's the Night gussied up by über-producer Daniel Lanois--especially since Williams points to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, produced by Lanois, as "greatly influencing" Essence, which includes Dylan vet Tony Garnier on bass and one-time Neil Young drummer Jim Keltner.
Essence co-producer Charlie Sexton is another Dylan link. Williams brought Sexton (Dylan's current lead guitarist and unofficial bandleader) on board to play second guitar, but after production problems developed with the original tracks--cuts involving musicians who'd returned to the road--Sexton saved the day, and likely the album, by filling in the blanks and adding enough new ideas to earn co-producer credits. Williams, who's been known to feud with producers, says she "didn't think that much" about turning Sexton loose in the studio. "I approach things very organically," she says. "And in this case, I said, 'Go for it.'"
Because Essence moves at a more languid pace than the breakthrough Car Wheels, it may not win Williams as many new fans. And corresponding commercial success isn't likely to push Williams into a considerably higher tax bracket. But she is coming off another Grammy, this time for her performance on the gospel-stomping "Get Right With God," the most up-tempo of the CD's tunes, and the album's critical acclaim will no doubt keep Williams' career at a place she couldn't imagine in her lower-rent, cult-goddess days.
"It's not what you think it's going to be like," she says of success. "But that goes without saying for anything in life. By the time you get to a certain age, in your 40s, everybody's different than they were in their 20s. But I certainly remember thinking, 'Oh, if I just had a record deal, everything would be great.' It used to be if I just had a gig, my life would be great. It went from that to, 'Boy, if I just had a record deal, I wouldn't have to work a day job.' And then once you get that, it's something else--'Oh, if I just had this person in my band.' So it's all relative. You just live in the moment, 'cause you don't know what's gonna happen next."