Shelby Lynne: Identity Crisis

[8 October 2003]

By Matt Cibula

One pick-up chord on acoustic guitar, and then Shelby Lynne‘s voice: “I can’t be here anymore / Just want it to be over”, a beat, and then she echoes herself with “Over”—and stop right there.

Because Shelby Lynne had been pronounced “over”, hadn’t she? It wasn’t really that long ago that she was the talk of the town for I Am Shelby Lynne, a record so strong and so beautiful that she managed to win the Grammy for Best New Artist despite having had a ten-year career up to that point. That disc, which was half more-trad-country-than-Nashville-could-handle and half woman-singer/songwriter-proving-she-didn’t-give-a-damn-about-genres-or-labels, set her up, and her rowdy party girl persona became omnipresent at award shows, where she inevitably showed up drunk. And she looked enough like a sad drunk that everyone was reminded of her childhood history back when she was Shelby Lynne Moorer, her and her younger sister watching their drunken father kill himself in the yard after killing his wife, their mother. And it seemed very clear that Shelby Lynne hadn’t really, what’s the word, dealt with herself yet.

And then it turned out that that younger sister, Allison Moorer, had the same voice and the same poetic hypnotic power as a songwriter, but with a centeredness that Shelby was lacking. Allison’s records, slowly, made her more of a reputation than Shelby’s follow-up, Love, Shelby, with its shiny Glen Ballard production, was able to muster. On the DVD of Allison’s beautiful live album Show from earlier this year, there is Shelby, proud of her little sister but with her hair all messed up, looking like a cute little drowned rat, singing her skinny ass off but overshadowed. The general assumption was that Shelby had crawled inside her pain (and maybe the bottle) and couldn’t see out, that Allison was the one who would end up making more of a mark on this world.

So this is the new Shelby Lynne album, and this is “Telephone”, the first song, and we start over, listening closely. That acoustic guitar is actually two, one in each speaker, one as the rhythm and one punching in some chord structures, and both are being played by Shelby Lynne, who plays all the guitars on the record and most of the drums and sings all the vocals and produces and writes the whole thing. “I can’t be here anymore / Just want it to be over” isn’t maybe about anything else other than the situation of the song, which is familiar to every single one of us who has ever had a heart broken: she called someone up to leave him (or her) a message: “I never really thought you would answer / Now it’s a big blown-up thing / I wish you hadn’t been at home / When the telephone rang”. But the way the thing unfolds is some kind of genius, because this apparently simple apparent lost-love song becomes bigger the way it reveals itself in glorious bits and pieces.

Bits and pieces how? Good old-fashioned call-and-response, except that the call is to herself and the response is to herself, she’s talking to herself again, that’s all you can do sometimes: “I’ve looked in faces that just looked away / Their eyes were dim and cloudy / (Can’t see a thing) / The pain of living with the hand that’s dealt / Is more than I can stand (Can you take it, can you take it, can you take it?)”—and just what, exactly, are we talking about here? What is this song about? How deep is this sadness, how can sadness this deep be anywhere related to a relationship with another human being? “I can’t forget all the mistakes I’ve made / It’d take a lifetime to erase them / (No I can’t go back) / And even that would never change a thing / And I can’t waste any more time (Time’s a-wastin’, time’s a-wastin’)”.

She’s not wasting any more time, she’s seized the means of production, this is Shelby Lynne announcing that she doesn’t really need anyone else in the entire world to help her express herself. (There are a couple different bass players, some string sections laid in, and dude out of Little Feat laid down ten keyboard tracks in one afternoon—other than that, I don’t think there’s a single other person on the album.) “Telephone” features some tasty guitar pieces, some souled-out blues-jazz snarls, some Chris Isaak big bendy chords, gently slashing rhythm chords, fills here and runs there, really a lot more guitars than you first notice, a tapestry of guitar sounds, even down to the fingers-on-the-frets scrapings that help to underpin the beat. Not sure, really, what part is more brilliant, the guitar playing itself or the patient self-production that layers these guitars on top of each other so that you hear a new surprise every time you hear the song.

And it’s the same thing for the singing; everyone knows that Shelby Lynne can sing the shit out of a song, but listen to the way she undersings the shit out of this one and know what subtlety is. (I hope Glen Ballard gets a promo copy—nothing against ol’ Glen, really, but this is the way we live now.) And listen to the way the song ebbs and flows, back and forth between its stated subject matter, regretting leaving a message for a formerly- and still-loved one, and its subtext: that this is the way the world is, that all human endeavor boils down to missed messages and regret, but that you just have to deal with that, time’s a-wastin’, can’t go erase your mistakes, can’t go back. This is songwriting exploding out on three or four different levels at once, combining with canny production and skillful guitar playing and one of the most beautiful voices that any of the deities have put on our planet this time around.

And, damn, am I going to spend my entire review on one freakin’ song? Well, apparently I am. But it’s kind of on purpose, because I want you to discover this record for yourself. I want the gospel harmonies on “10 Rocks” to hit you as hard as they hit me (and the reference to Allison, and the haunting Romantic-era lyrics); I want you to hear the bitterness on the blues of “Evil Man” and the olde-tyme jass of “Buttons and Beaus” without them being overly-described by over-enthusiastic reviewers, because hearing “Your momma’s a whore / Your daddy’s dead” for the first time on the latter will make you afraid to mess with Shelby Lynne forever; I want the whole thing to wash over you without a lot of hyperbole.

Not because this record doesn’t deserve it, not because songs like “If I Were Smart” and “I’m Alive” (moody Broadway-pop and rootsy rock, respectively) can’t take it—but because you deserve the thrill of discovery of this record. What happens at exactly 0:39 of the rollicking “Gonna Be Better” should make you hop around your world the way it made me, and you’ll do it again at the 1:09 mark when she pulls the next card out of her sleeve. And I would love to be there when you realize just what exactly transpires on “Lonesome,” when that grin splits your head in half and your eyes roll up in your head when you howl along to that chorus. . . .

But I’ll spoil it if I say any more. So I won’t say any more, except to say that this is exactly 40 minutes of transcendent music by someone who we always knew was one of the best singers and songwriters on the scene, but someone who we were afraid was never going to make the music she should be making. Well, she’s done it, she did it, she dealt with the demons she needed to deal with, and she poured the rest into these death-defying songs, she fucking well did it.

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