To basically everyone who heard it, Shelby Lynne earned the right to call her breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne--no matter that it was her sixth full-length and the one to win her the Best New Artist Grammy. The record's flaxen weave of brutal country confession and elegant soul reserve--essentially, Lynne's ability to sing about the murder of her mother by her father in a voice as gorgeous as a broken angel's--unveiled a talent that had spent the previous decade buried beneath Nashville's attempts to make Lynne a contempo-country star. It also brought her an entirely new audience, one made up of history-humping critical types, Aimee Mann-worshiping neo-pop traditionalists and the more adventurous listeners wading in the warm aural bathwater of AAA radio. And even if it didn't sell like it was supposed to--who knew graying day traders knew Napster?--the record set the stage for the vital phase of Lynne's record-making career.
Too bad, then, that Love, Shelby, I Am's hotly anticipated follow-up, might be better titled Am I Shelby Lynne? This is supposed to be the record on which Lynne takes advantage of the artistic independence she proved last time out and even further defines herself through another batch of painfully realized, painfully gorgeous songs. Early signs pointed to that happening: "Killin' Kind," which brightened the Bridget Jones's Diary soundtrack and is included here, is a piece of spun-sugar pop so sweet it'll break your teeth (if Lynne's lyric, about the kind of love that "feels so right my arms won't be of any use at all if I can't hold you," doesn't break your heart first). That tune, along with a couple of others, provides the album with its most pleasant surprise--that Lynne has really become quite good at that Aimee Mann-like neo-traditionalist pop: "Walls in Your Heart" is a gooey McCartney number just begging for Jon Brion's music-box tinkering, and a devastating run through Lennon's "Mother" carries its own weight.
But it's not a strength that can save Love, Shelby from its own fragmentation. Hiring Glen Ballard to helm the effort was Lynne's first mistake if she had any interest in crafting a work as cohesive as her last one. Ballard's an overeager studio rat, and his allegiance here to slick Don Henley schlock (opener "Trust Me," "All of a Sudden You Disappeared") and Melissa Etheridge bluster (the terrible "Jesus on a Greyhound") goes way wide of the target. The result is all too similar to Lynne's career itself: a bedeviled grope for self-definition in the shadow of music-biz misdirection.
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