There should never be a point in an artist’s career when he/she stops taking risks. Seasoned country music veteran Martina McBride walked away from her brand new set, Eleven, fully knowing that she took as many creative leaps as possible. Tackling pop, R&B, and a touch of reggae, Eleven, McBride’s 11th studio album, is a fresh assertion that her career is skyrocketing into a brand new direction.
“One Night,” a track cowritten by McBride with Tommy Lee James and Claude Kelly, is a song detailing exactly how McBride feels walking out onstage. Die-hard fans will be thrilled to know that this song is dedicated to them. With its anthemic appeal, “Night” charges full speed in all the McBride glory. Vocally, she is at her best, and as the first of six penned McBride tunes on Eleven, “Night” kicks off a solid set as a downright superb concert opener.
Taking cues from Jason Mraz and Train, McBride explores the ukulele on “Always Be This Way.” The track, written by McBride, Brett James, and Hillary Lindsey, is a “breezy, playful, and fun” perspective on love. Unlike her previous work, McBride takes a real creative risk with the arrangement and produces a pop radio-friendly ditty. McBride has experienced very little (if any) crossover success, but “Always” could be a huge breakout for the 40-something crooner.
It would not be a McBride album without a socially conscious and emotionally stirring song. With “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” written by Ben Hayslip, Sonya Isaacs, and Jimmy Yeary, McBride revists the magical storytelling she is most famous for. Much like “Independence Day,” her signature song released in 1994, “Love” cuts to the gut and sparks a new awareness of how cancer affects the caregivers. Dripping with sincerity, McBride serves up windy and mountainous vocals that could melt the coldest heart. The accompanying video for “Love,” which features real people who have survived or been a victim, including Katie Couric, reveals the harsh reality of the disease but provides an inspirational message.
“Marry Me,” a Train original, is a duet between McBride and Train lead singer Pat Monahan, which was first performed on CMT’s Crossroads. By adding McBride’s soothing voice, “Marry Me” morphs into a whole new song as two lovers trying to get up the nerve to talk to one another. Monahan’s pop vocals are an intriguing balance to McBride’s, and once both come together at the end, a milky and delicious dessert is created.
With a jazz arrangement and horns to boot, “Broken Umbrella,” penned by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, and Chris Tompkins, stretches McBride beyond bland country lyrics and orchestration into fresh territory. With Carolyn Dawn Johnson singing background vocals, “Umbrella” paints a colorful spread of images to illustrate the effect love has on someone. A groovy vibe and impassioned vocals electrify an album (and a career) that needs to prove its relevancy. Without the clever placement of horns, this tune could have easily fallen flat, but McBride continues to push musical boundaries and try out-of-the-box ideas.
“You Can Get Your Lovin’ Right Here,” written by McBride, Leslie Satcher, and Rachel Thibodeau, is a sexy and soft-rock guitar inflected track. Off the McBride beaten path, “Here” flexes her vocal stylings and phrasing, opening up a whole new world to explore. With horns and finger snaps thrown in, McBride marvelously maneuvers around the lyrical creation without any hesitation. She should be mindful, however, not to take too many risks; casual fans might not appreciate the effort as much as others.
“I’m done listening to all your talk, talk, talk,” McBride confidently declares on “Whatcha Gonna Do,” written by Rebecca Lynn Howard, Jason Sever, and Thibodeau. With a clear resolution, McBride begs for her man to change, but she knows if he doesn’t, she’s ready to go out that door. The production is light, with no brassy horns, which allows the curves and highs of McBride’s admirable vocal control to be highlighted. At times, throughout Eleven, the arrangements and her unrelenting ambition for risks clouds her voice, leaving it struggling to be heard.”Gonna” is a welcome surprise, especially around the one minute and forty-five second mark, where McBride swims into subtle but effective vocal swirls.
The lead single from this album, “Teenage Daughters,” was inspired by McBride’s own life and was cowritten with Brad and Brett Warren. As a testament of the turmoil of raising a teenager, “Daughters” makes the case for all parents trying to be cool, but somehow tries too hard. The sentiment is there, no denying that. Somehow, from the pop mentality to almost pandering to a particular demographic, “Daughters” may have faired better as a bonus track than a full on album cut. With a solid effort that is Eleven, a foggy moment like this makes the album less enjoyable.
Then, McBride redeems herself completely with “Summer of Love,” crafted with James and Lindsey. Much of modern country music is about recreating glorious songs of years past, such as “Strawberry Wine” by Deana Carter. With “Summer,” McBride channels Carter in a twisty and exuberant story about loving and losing. With a piano and guitar-driven production, McBride lays the sentiment on thick and leaves the imagery open for interpretation. If McBride needed a comeback, this would be the song to do it with. Supplying just a pinch of wistful longing, she sells this story with every conviction in her small stature.
“When You Love a Sinner,” written by Chip G. Boyd, Jay Clementi, and Kacey Musgraves, is a moving tale about alcoholism and loving a sinner. “You can’t tread water with a drowning man,” McBride cries. The simple production allows the focus to lay entirely on her voice and the lyrics. She equates loving the sinner with lending to the sin. Unlike her other socially poignant tracks, “Sinner” is a chilling portrayal of devastation without overflowing with a Christian message. In only two minutes and fifty-five seconds, this track is golden songwriting and storytelling at its finest.
The album closer, “Long Distance Lullaby,” cowritten by McBride with Irwin and Kear, is a starry gift to McBride’s children. Throughout her career, McBride has learned the delicate and difficult balance needed to juggle music and family. With McBride’s daughter Ava lending her foot tapping skills, “Lullaby” supplies a tender melody and sweet vocals. Even though the lyrics are personal to McBride, the track can be about anyone away from someone they love. This is the beauty with Eleven; each track is wholly relatable to life, love, and sadness.
Must Listens: “One Night,” “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” “Summer of Love,” “When You Love a Sinner”
Rating: *** 1/2 out of 5