[19 October 2011]
Sometimes singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne tells her stories in clear and precise terms so that one clearly understands the characters, setting, and situation. Other times, she writes vague and symbolic tales where what gets disclosed seems to have a supernatural connection. The superficial features hide something deeper. That’s what the word “revelation” from the title song, “Revelation Road”, is about. During the song, Lynne gets caught up in a rapture and using various inflections starts chanting the word “Revelation” more than two dozen times. The Buddhist-like trance effect of the mantra becomes transformed as Lynne’s Southern accent makes the sound of the words resemble “Rebel Nation” more than anything religious. That makes a sort of sense, as Lynne’s roots are located in the same white Southern Christian gospel as redneck rock.
The strategy of repetition occurs again in “Woebeggone”, as Lynne repeats the title word over and over until it becomes, “Whoa, Be Gone”, something much more final and funereal. The songs’ contents are never really clear, although the melancholy referred to in the tune’s name gets conveyed in the crying tone of the singer. The mood takes on primary importance. Expressing emotion reveals emotion.
These songs have a languid and spiritual appeal, like that of the mythic Southland, where the poor live in more natural surroundings than the rest of us are and in greater touch with their authentic feelings. Sure, it is bull, but it is not supposed to be realistic, but rather something unexplainable with mere words. For some, this is what separates art from life — which is why the results are manifested in songs.
However, the best songs are the ones where Lynne provides the specifics and lets listeners understand the situation. For example, the first verse of “I’ll Hold Your Head” is pure poetry: “Four bald tires on an old Impala / 70 degrees south Alabama / Mama needs money, and we’re late for school / Pickin’ out the parts on a Bob Wills tune / Got a scrambled egg sandwich and a Folger’s can / Daddy says he’ll never work the man”. No ideas but in things here as we learn about a child’s life from a child’s point of view. The story grows into one the profound connection between two sisters who live in a family with a violent father.
Lynne ambitiously wrote all the music, played all of the instruments, and sang all of the songs, as well as recorded and produced the album. On the above-mentioned track, with approximately a minute left of the four-plus minute southern rock soap opera, she incorporates the Gus Kahn standard “Side by Side”. The listener feels the sisters trying to raise each others’ spirits as the two songs gently mix. There’s no reason to get into Lynne’s and her sister Allison Moorer’s tragic tale of youth here, other than to say one does not need the backstory to appreciate the artistry at work. The details make this a complex story where what gets conveyed carries aesthetic weight.
All 11 songs here showcase Lynne’s ambition and control. Why else would she do all the work by herself? The contents may vary in tone and style, but there is something distinctly personal going on. It’s as if she’s on the psychiatrist’s coach and sometimes tells her dreams and other times just says what happened. Her monologues may be cathartic for the teller, but more importantly, they let the listener see the latent drives and overt desires that inhabit all of us. Lynne goes it alone so we don’t have to.