Lucinda Williams doesn't merely wallow in suffering. She savors it like a glass of your finest Bordeaux, and she's never taken longer swigs than she does on Essence. Take, for instance, ''I Envy the Wind,'' in which Mother Nature joins the list of those who make her jealous when it comes to the object of her obsession: ''I envy the rain/That falls on your face/That wets your eyelashes/And dampens your skin.'' It's a remarkable lyric, but she doesn't just sing it; her sawdust voice lingers slowly, gingerly, on each syllable, relishing the mix of melancholy and lust.
Williams isn't the first singer-songwriter to dwell on unfulfilled ardor, nor does she always present unique takes on it. ''Essence'' offers up the love-as-drug metaphor (the title song), the number about the eternal appeal of the Dangerous Man (''Broken Butterflies''), and pained, what-if-we-should-run-into-each-other laments (''Reason to Cry,'' ''Out of Touch''). (Her lyrical skill is best heard in ''Bus to Baton Rouge,'' whose details of a plastic-covered couch and unplayed piano say more about a broken home than a direct statement could.) But something in the combination of her dusty voice and the music makes the cliches come alive. Her folkiest, gentlest album, ''Essence'' is a steamy slow-crawl -- Southern humidity as music -- that plays into her strengths as the Joan of Dark of the alt-country set. As if to avoid rattling her, the guitars and other instruments tiptoe around Williams, letting loose only for the album's requisite old-timey shuffle, ''Get Right With God.''
''Essence'' is hurt a bit by its sequencing -- the first few songs are so similar in mood that you may feel you've hit the ''repeat'' button on your stereo -- and by Williams' modest ambitions. It doesn't feel like a busting out the way the previous ''Car Wheels on a Gravel Road'' did. It merely gives in to the desire that hath no name and, at its best, makes a beautiful loser out of anyone who can relate.