From Ecclectic to Scattered
Shelby Lynne’s breakthrough release I Am Shelby Lynne is one of my favorite dishwashing records. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually a very high compliment. The album has a languorous quality that transports me away from the drudgery of the grease and the suds. It makes heartbreak sound beautiful, summer afternoons eternal, and dishwashing non-existent.
None of Lynne’s subsequent albums have quite met the high bar set by I Am Shelby Lynne, but I had high hopes for her latest, Tears, Lies, and Alibis, when I put it on during my Sunday night cleanup. The album starts out strong. A jaunty guitar and percussive organ lead a bouncy march backing incongruously depressive lyrics. It was actually highly reminiscent of the elaborately orchestrated weeper that raises the curtain on I Am Shelby Lynne. Lynne held me at first, but the spell faded after the first five songs. When Tears ended 37 minutes later, I went to check that something wasn’t wrong with the CD player. Surely that can’t be it, I thought. She must have forgotten to finish the album.
Shelby Lynne has always had a difficult relationship to her eclecticism. It is what makes her stand out, when it works. She can cut strong tracks in many different styles. But it makes the album a challenging format, one she failed to come to terms with this time.
Tears, Lies, and Alibis contains the larvae of several different albums, but none of them take flight because they don’t have enough time to mature. One is neo-Motown R&B, another down-the-line alt-country (if there is such a thing), and the last is dark singer-songwriter music. Some of the individual songs are terrific, those which let her breathy voice float over a melody and drift to a conflicted climax. But some, like when she seems to be attempting to channel the depressing balladeer Townes Van Zandt, sound like she’s playing musical dress-up.
Lynne puts her strongest material up front. After the buoyant tear-jerker, “Then the Rains Came”, she treats us to “Why Didn’t You Call Me”, another tune about heartbreak. This one, however, is better suited to dancing your blues away in your bedroom than to rinsing them off by defiantly marching outside in a thunderstorm. The sparseness of the third track, “Like a Fool”, is surprising. Lynne is backed just by a guitar and a resonant baseline. It takes some discipline to stay with her mood. I found myself yearning for more orchestration, but the song is about longing for a departed lover. Once I let myself step into the song, I realized it was an artful evocation of the emptiness left by heartbreak.
The song that follows, “Alibi”, is almost jarring. The arrangement is not that much more elaborate, but her delivery is luxurious and filled with elegantly tragic cascades. It is like a serving of German chocolate cake after a simple meal of steamed vegetables. It is a beautiful creation in its own right, but its richness is overwhelming. Another strong song follows, but it changes the album’s mood yet again: “There’s Something to Be Said” is a sleepy ode to the Airstream trailer, accompanied by a lazy guitar and a drifting dobro. It somehow synthesizes the cinematic qualities of a song like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Our Town” with the delicious aimlessness of Gillian Welch and David Rollins’ “I Dream a Highway”.
Then, Shelby Lynne gets pissed off—and so do I. From this tender daydream of the road, she sings a relentless and incomprehensible diatribe against a family member. “Family Tree” is a musical misstep, and it derails the album. It is basically her and a guitar, which obsessively repeats a sour minor chord progression without interruption or relief. This delivery might be workable if there were a recognizable story line that created a dramatic progression, but the lyrics are littered with homespun platitudes that make it feel more like empty sentiment than meaningful experience.
The songs that round out the album similarly waver between sparse tunes aiming at etherealness and ballads that strive for languor. None quite work on their own, and I lose all sense of where we’re headed. We never return to the grander sensibility that opened the album, as if Lynne also lost track of where she began. Lynne still is an exciting musician when she has places to take us. Hopefully, her next album well get us somewhere.
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