On her third album, Mindy Smith still has the exquisite voice of a hummingbird, and the emotional fortitude of one.
A gorgeous lady with a gorgeous voice, Mindy Smith might have been a country superstar. Her harrowing "Jolene" cover (second best "Jolene" cover of the decade after the White Stripes') and her kinda religious "Come to Jesus" netted CMT and VH1 rotation, and airplay on more daring country stations. And her photogenic looks certainly did not impede her success. Yet, her delicate soprano was too subtle for classification alongside the Opryland belters, and she was quickly ghettoized with the alt-country label, though her first two albums, 2004’s spellbinding One Moment More and 2006’s bluegrassy Long Island Shores, were more Patty Loveless than Lucinda Williams.
From its semi-aggressive (by Mindy Smith standards, at least) title to its crackling guitar fuzz and programmed drums, Stupid Love is Smith’s attempt at a straight-up pop record. Even a harmony vocal from Vince Gill, on the otherwise negligible “Telescope”, does little to recapture Smith’s twang, which always seemed a bit affected anyway. Twang or no twang, Stupid Love is, like her previous sets, too modest for any grand success. But it's a lovely enough album, a cozy, soothing companion for Saturday night sobfests and Sunday morning hangovers.
Stupid Love alternates between catchy and pretty, occasionally achieving both in tandem. “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” and “Love Lost” are graceful, gut-churning heartbreakers, with hooks as acrobatically agile as the vocals. But “What Love Can Do” is an unengaging Fleetwood Mac homage, and “Highs and Lows” wastes a robust melody on a hokey look-at-these-mementos lyric. Guest spots from CCM mainstays Amy Grant and Leigh Nash, and Mraz-in-training Jeremy Lister, are barely noticeable and hardly missed, for Smith’s voice is the star attraction here, and it enlivens all but the dullest material.
Mindy Smith’s voice epitomizes longing. She is a high lonesome princess purring into the open air, and hearing nothing back, not even an echo. Like most homespun miserabilists, she's at her best when she's at her most downtrodden, when her voice cracks as the lump in her throat rises, and the tears in her retinas well up, and her sole defense is going an octave higher to dull (there is no hiding) the pain. When the sun cracks through in the closing trilogy, she still emits an unspoken longing, as if the relief of finding a true love or taking a holiday is all too fleeting, and frighteningly temporary.
Through her highs and lows, Smith remains tender and unassuming, and that is her Achilles’ heel. Hers are songs of docile resignation, and Smith's hushed demeanor only accentuates her powerlessness. In the aftermath of "Before He Cheats" and "Picture to Burn", Smith's reluctant acceptance of her lovelorn fate seems regressive. She is not a woman scorned; she is a woman irked. Even on "Bad Guy", when she leaves a dickish and possibly abusive boyfriend, she does so with too much (self-)pity and not enough outrage. She can deliver insouciance and desperation, but she rarely reaches anything approaching passion, positive or negative. Where voice is often a source of power for her country peers, from Dolly Parton to Faith Hill to Jennifer Nettles, Smith’s voice more often articulates an almost childlike fragility, which nudges her closer to the indie-ish camp of Sia or Inara George.
And thus, she personifies those unspeakably beautiful, prodigiously talented but still inexplicably depressed young women, subdued with AMA-approved pharmaceuticals to make even life's most emotionally devastating blows seem like just another drizzly morning commute. “I gave it all I had but it was not enough / It didn’t make me strong / It didn’t make me tough / It’s just stupid love”, she laments in opening track “What Went Wrong”, a veritable mission statement for her feminine complacency. Even the song titles -- “If I Didn’t Know Any Better”, “I’m Disappointed”, “What Love Can Do” -- evince the hapless woes of the feeble female. Compare that to Smith’s most blatant influence, Patty Griffin, whose stunning cadences often pack a disarming wallop.
Succinctly stated, Mindy Smith’s voice has a power and a complexity that her songs (or her perspectives) have not yet achieved. This leaves Stupid Love a pleasurable and poignant affair, but not as emotionally gripping as it could be, or wants to be. Once Mindy Smith stops being stupid about love, she could achieve something truly remarkable: music that approaches the Emmylous and Pattys she so eagerly emulates.