Shelby Lynne’s lyric sheets read like a series of beautifully self-contained stories, whether they be biographical, fictional, or stylized portraits in miniature. Her album titles, however, run a much more personal gambit.
Starting with 2000’s Grammy-winning breakthrough I Am Shelby Lynne, the long-standing Epic Records country darling made a defiant personal declaration, releasing a country album that didn’t sound even remotely like a country album, interpolating Wall of Sound girl-group pop with stylized torch numbers, evocative jazz-accented pieces, and so much more. Critics swooned, but consumers weren’t fully convinced, leading to 2001’s Love, Shelby, a big mainstream gamble that failed to connect despite a title that seemed to eagerly be giving folks what they wanted. Her brilliant 2003 roots album Identity Crisis winkingly acknowledges her abrupt change in genre, with 2005’s nuanced Suit Yourself seeming to say that she is what she is and you can take it or leave it.
Given that her post-millennial music has never fit in a single predictable genre bracket, it’s no surprise that Lynne had gotten frustrated with the ways in which other people tried to market her, and nowhere was this more apparent than with the campaign to 2008’s stunning, Dusty Springfield tribute Just a Little Lovin’, which forced alt-country stalwarts Lost Highway Records trying to market a jazz album. Despite her highest-ever ranking on the Billboard charts, Lynne decided to form her own label, Everso Records, and used her new found freedom to unleash two excellent albums or original material along with a Christmas disc for a nice little seasonal sales bump. Lynne wasn’t the biggest artist in the world, but she didn’t need to be: she was free, she was happy, and most of all, she was still churning out album after album of nothing but top-tier material, her discography turning into one of the most respected in recent memory.
Thus, by calling her new album I Can’t Imagine, Lynne basically tells the rest of the world with a casual shrug what her fans have known for decades: that she is a constantly evolving artist that never releases the same thing twice, as if one can’t imagine what she’s going to do next. To say nothing of her changing labels, this time trading out her beloved indie moniker for the rich resources of Rounder, Imagine also makes a slight turn from the formalized explorations of 2011’s Revelation Road by going for an expansive Laurel Canyon-inspired bit of twang that sounds like it was glazed in California sunlight before reaching our ears. Despite featuring two songs co-written with Ron Sexsmith, Imagine doesn’t make too many overly commercial overtures, instead sounding completely content by doing nothing more than stretching out its legs and letting these casual crooners do their thing without anything getting in the way.
“I threw these colors down in a fit of rage,” Lynne sings in an acapella moment at the top of opener “Paper van Gogh” before continuing: “My feelings hardly fit onto the page / Cloudy memories make for darker days / But blue is how I paint myself today”. There is a generally contented tone with the lyrics overall, with Lynne waxing about the nicities of life on track after track. Sometimes she pushes a bit more into the abstract, like during the lazy Sunday morning of a stroll of a song “Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” which features some rather amateurish and vaguely environmental couplets (“Oh we all on this planet / Arm and arm as we touch / Sister, brother / And our Earth mother”) that, when sung with Lynne’s trademark conviction, are given a gravity that few other singers would’ve been able to pull off.
At one point, Lynne can be found wandering the desert landscape like during the shambling “Son of a Gun” (which incidentally ends up sounding like a Central Reservation-era Beth Orton number). At another, she serves as a lyrical documentarian, capturing small town moments on “Down Here” like “big church steeples piercing the sunset” and “busted bicycle chains”, but, outside of a quick mention about her relationship to God and talking about how “truth is a masquerade”, Lynne doesn’t explore the concept much further. We’re left wondering exactly what interpretation to slap onto the song, but by bringing in a choir of voices to sing about “three dollar bills” near the track’s end, we aren’t offered any any new insights into the song’s purpose.
In fact, as accomplished as Imagine‘s music is (and rest assured, getting songs to sound this easy-going requires a hell of a lot of craft), Lynne’s lyrics this time out are hazier, sparser, and more loosely connected than ever. Gone are the instant shots of clarity that was got on tracks like Revelation Road‘s “I’ll Hold Your Head” or Identity Crisis‘ “Telephone”, and its place are songs like “Better”, which details a girl dealing with some issues after a broadly defined breakup of sorts, but we only get insight into the situation through the most amorphous of ways (“In the evening she is sleeping / Fading youth / Desolation, secret avenue”). There is a strong interpretive bent to these lyrics, one that’s shaped by Lynne’s powerful pipes, but over the course of an entire album, we as listeners feel we’re being kept at arm’s lengths from connecting with it on an emotional level.
Ultimately, for coming back to the label system after so many years on her ownsome, I Can’t Imagine feels like a remarkably minor record in her discography, full of warmth and good vibes but lacking that conviction that has defined virtually all of her post-millennial work. Yes, the sonic palette she culls from is different, but that’s to be expected: fans of Lynne know full well that she will follow her muse to the ends of the earth no matter directions it takes her in. Despite its title, I Can’t Imagine isn’t so much a pondering statement of an album as it is just a casually enjoyable one. However, more important than the title is name behind it, because even when she’s at her most nebulous, it’s still hard to find artists as fascinating as Shelby Lynne.