Fifteen years after Shelby Lynne’s breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne and 12 albums on, Lynne’s voice and songwriting remain two of the finest treasures of the world of country music for grownups. Her voice has taken on a little more depth and richness as she continues to explore the human condition on I Can’t Imagine, her new self-produced album on Rounder Records.
Opening the album with her voice alone, Lynne comments on the creative process itself in “Paper Van Gogh,” a beautiful song and a bit of an intellectual exercise at the same time, reminding me of the best of Roseanne Cash. Lynne’s voice seems to come from some unearthly realm here – or maybe from the fantastical sweep of a Van Gogh.
“Back Door Front Porch,” sung with a little assistance from Citizen Cope, is a soulful, contemplative curiosity of subtle aesthetics, full of muted but unresolved tension in its dark chords and unorthodox melody.
“Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” lays night-time ’60s R&B behind sun-drenched vocals, a warm, easygoing ride through Marvin Gaye/Temptations territory.
And “Son of a Gun” is emblematic of Lynne’s approach throughout the album – its chord structure couldn’t be much simpler, but the tense off-center melody of the chorus and the atmospherically funky arrangement make the sparse Depression-era portrait strange and mysterious.
Lynne’s vision isn’t all about generations past. The gay narrator of the epic “Down Here” lives in a “dark Dixie closet” where he finds that the “truth is a masquerade.” The slow rocking wail of the music puts out a cry of desperation that anyone facing unfairness and adversity, anyone who’s ever felt like a “three-dollar bill,” can appreciate. The start of the next song, “Love Is Strong,” comes as a relief from the intensity, starting out in gentle ballad mode, but opens up into a constellation of New Orleans R&B.
Pounding syncopation from the upright bass helps make “Be in the Now” inspirational: “Never mind the rain / It only means to show you how / To be in the now.” Sounds basic enough, but Lynne’s maple-syrup vocals and the cascades of vocal harmonies make it sound like the advice you’ve been waiting for all your life.
The catchy title track, which, surprisingly, closes the album, has the serious sunniness of early-’70s California pop-rock. But by this time Lynne has absorbed the listener fully into her poetic-acoustical world, so that it’s a bit of a shock to reflect on the variety of pop music traditions she’s drawn on for this gem of a “country” album.