The 10th proper studio album in a career that has balanced impressive commercial stats (eight #1 singles, gold or platinum certifications for each of her albums, multiple wins at the Grammys, CMAs, and ACMs) with a remarkable degree of consistent quality-control that not even the best of her contemporaries can match, Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love is an album characterized by significant departures for Trisha Yearwood. The most obvious departure is from her major-label contract—a move that many ‘90s veteran acts like Dwight Yoakam and Pam Tillis have already made with excellent results. After 16 years with MCA, Yearwood followed Scott Borchetta, who had helped mold her career since her debut single, “She’s in Love with the Boy,” shot to #1 back in 1991, to one of Nashville’s new “big” indie labels, Big Machine. The move to an independent label won’t suddenly have anyone mistaking Yearwood for alt-country singers like Neko Case or Carolyn Mark; instead, the most noticeable change is that Big Machine is small enough to give Yearwood the individual attention her talent deserves but, thanks to the successes of Jack Ingram and Taylor Swift, also has the muscle to give her a strong promotional push after MCA slacked off on her last two records.
Another significant departure, though, comes from the album that Big Machine is lucky enough to have to promote. To this point in her career, Yearwood’s artistic highpoints—the woman-on-the-verge stone country cycle of 1993’s Hearts in Armor and the sophisticated, soulful adult-pop of 2000’s Real Live Woman—have come on the heels of her divorces. Heaven, however, is the first album Yearwood has recorded since her high-profile marriage to superstar Garth Brooks (who is now, it’s worth noting, on the Big Machine roster). And breaking with form, it happens to be one of her absolute finest albums.
For well over a decade now, Yearwood has been one of, if not the, best singers recording in any popular genre, with a combination of technical power and range, an intuitive, thoughtful command of phrasing, and a real sense of presence. So it’s really saying something that she’s never sounded better than she does on Heaven. Though she’s best known for her pop-leaning ballads, it’s her bluesier uptempo numbers and her more traditional country cuts that best showcase the breadth of her skill, and the album gives her plenty of shine on both. On the fiery lead single and title track, for instance, Yearwood doesn’t “sing” so much as deliver a pew-jumping sermon, and her performance is all the more effective because of how well she uses dynamics to emphasize key lines and build momentum. Yearwood can belt and growl better than just about anyone, but what makes her such a superior vocalist is that she knows when it’s in service of the song. The way she lapses into her upper register for a near-yodel on the bridge to “Cowboys Are My Weakness” is a genuinely clever and effective nod to the song’s deliberate retro style, while the way she swallows her vowels on the traditional country ballad “Help Me” recalls vintage Tammy Wynette. It’s amazing, really, that Yearwood is still finding new ways to use her voice and all the more remarkable that her instincts are so consistently right.
Simply as a vocal showcase, Heaven would merit high praise, but the album ranks among her best work because of the strength of the songs. Yearwood’s ear for quality material distinguishes her from her peers almost as much as her voice does, and song-for-song this is perhaps the strongest, most cohesive collection she has yet assembled. The title track, by Clay Mills and Tia Sillers, uses an unconventional triptych structure to explore relationships between the three “big” themes in country music, and the album’s remaining 12 songs elaborate on those themes with striking detail. Karyn Rochelle is credited on four of the album’s best songs, including the raucous, bitter kiss-off “Nothin’ About You Is Good for Me” and the emotionally raw post-breakup ballad “This Is Me You’re Talking To.” The standout song, though, is “The Dreaming Fields,” a stately hymn for the loss of the family farm that’s as mournful and melancholy as anything Yearwood has ever recorded and which might be the best song that the acclaimed team of Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison have ever written.
There simply isn’t a weak song on the record. And Garth Fundis, who produced all of Yearwood’s albums except her two slickest pop efforts (1998’s Where Your Road Leads and 2001’s Inside Out), smartly plays to the diversity of the material—the horn section on the exceptional “Nothin’ Bout Memphis” works perfectly, the fiddle on “Cowboys Are My Weakness” doesn’t come across as hokey, and the smoking rhythm section comes through in the foreground on the title track—while keeping the record firmly grounded in contemporary country. Combining Fundis’s production with Yearwood’s performances and the songs’ memorable hooks, at least half of the album’s tracks would make for viable radio singles. Hopefully, Big Machine will make better choices in that regard than MCA did, because if country radio has any sense left at all, Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love should allow Yearwood to return to the top of the charts. It’s a career-best effort from one of the genre’s all-time greatest vocalists and a testament to the vitality, intelligence, and soulfulness of modern country’s best music.