Natalie Hemby‘s rise took time. Her songwriting got attention a little quicker, particularly in her work with Miranda Lambert. The Highwomen supergroup brought her more attention, likely paving the way for her second full-length, Pins and Needles. After a couple of decades in the industry, she has the skills and the connections to put together just what she wants. Some of those friends she’d written with in the past show up here as co-writers, bolstering her work. Pins and Needles arrives like a mid-career release from an artist fully confident of her direction, and while it’s only Hemby’s sophomore effort, it has the force of time behind it.
Hemby might be deep in the Nashville scene, but her new album spreads out into pop territory, drawing more on Fleetwood Mac than Patsy Cline. If she has an AOR tilt, she knows how to stick to (her) roots by bringing in Greg Leisz for a couple of rounds of pedal steel and Chuck Leavell for an organ cameo. Much of the rest of the sound – instrumentation and production – comes from husband Mike Wrucke, who knows how to give the pop its space while retaining a slight twang. The connection to Lambert (who has two co-writes here) and Amanda Shires makes sense, with a bit of drift toward Ingrid Andress thrown in.
The album draws from its consistent lyrics. “Hardest Part About Business” matches the sort of attitude we’d expect from a member of the Highwomen. “It’s better if you work alone,” Hemby sings with a bit of a swagger, “because the hardest part about business is minding your own.” The wordplay’s clever, but it would merely be cute if it didn’t extend to a look at the actual weight and complications of secrecy in the workplace. The song highlights Hemby’s wit, but it features her insight.
As on that track, opener “Heroes” wishes for less information. She doesn’t want to know the truth about or even meet her heroes for fear that they might let her down. That fear of losing the “ideal” trickles through Pins and Needles. “New Madrid” grooves through memories, but the memories only make prominent the absences that hurt, most centrally the feeling she and her partner no longer share. Rather than fully dig through the truth of the relationship, they choose not to talk about it. The river and the song flow on, pushing around the sedentary heartbreak at the center. “Radio Silence” covers similar issues with a certain sweetness.
This mild sense of loss and anxiety informs much of the album, keeping Hemby from fully embracing crushes or potentially more profound experiences. “Full Disclosure: Never a poser / As long as I can fake it with you,” she sings at one point, arm still extended. It comes as a relief when she finishes with “Last Resort” and its offer of shared resilience. The finish fits. Hemby, the artist, displays confidence at every turn, even as her singers worry and fuss. In the end, patience pays off, and everything comes through all right, even in a challenging world.