This is Lynne’s show, and when she sings her voice is always the lead instrument, but she lets the layers of music carry her forward. Sometimes she gets wordlessly overwhelmed and resorts to sounds to express her emotions.
Lucky for us, Shelby Lynne’s thirteenth album, her first in more than three years, is her of her best yet. And that’s saying a lot because Lynne has recorded some great discs, such as I Am Shelby Lynne (1999) Just a Little Lovin' (2008) and Revelation Road (2011). However, I Can't Imagine is a tremendous achievement even when compared with Lynne’s previous lofty accomplishments. The songs are great, and she wrote or co-wrote every one. Her fellow musicians and she are tight; she employs her road band here and self-produced the record. And her sweet and salty vocals are better than ever.
Lynne employs a variety of Southern styles including R&B, gospel and country that evoke her rural Alabama roots as well as California rock, folk and Indian themes that suggest her new cosmopolitan home state. Her voice is the most absorbing feature of I Can't Imagine . She loops through the material like a ribbon turning into a bow. The singer relies on the sounds of the words to make more sense than the actual language as she sings in strange idioms and matches phrases in odd pairings. For example, Lynne gently howls over a light mid-tempo riff and then she croons, “We sold the devil a dash of sunshine.” The imagery is rich and engaging, and maybe this is some kind of Gothic reference from Dixie. It doesn’t matter. Lynne’s delivery just makes you feel good.
Or there’s the simple grace of “Back Door Front Porch”. Lynne spends much of the song, including the last minute and 45 seconds of a four and a half minute track, simply repeating the four words of the title like a mantra. How can the front porch have a back door? It’s a koan sung with reverence. Like a dream, like a memory it doesn’t make sense but it does when you hear the dreamy way Lynne sings it.
The melodies reinforce the sense of reverie that pervades the album. For the most part, piano keys are gently pressed, guitars strummed instead of picked, drums and cymbals played to set the beat instead of leading the activities. Nonetheless, there’s a strong energy caused by the way the players interact with each other. This is Lynne’s show, and when she sings her voice is always the lead instrument, but she lets the layers of music carry her forward. Sometimes she gets wordlessly overwhelmed and resorts to sounds to express her emotions.
As the title of the Zen-tinged “Be in the Now” indicates, Lynne uses the music to live in the moment. For 10 songs, for just over 40 minutes, she compels the listener to do the same. She succeeds. There is not a bad track or boring moment on the album. Its presence is present, as the monks would say.
Lynne sings that she cannot imagine someone else’s pain. However, her empathy for others comes out strong, especially in the bluesy vibe of the title song. She may be singing in the first person, but she’s thinking about others and how to help them through hard times. Throughout the album, Lynne’s imagination allows her to contemplate the past of front porches, the current moment, and whatever the future may hold all as one thing, and her music allows her to aurally share this vision with her listeners.