Two decades into a career that has balanced fully-deserved critical acclaim with a long run of commercial success, Dwight Yoakam has, like so many other veterans of country music pushed aside in favor of newer products, made the transition from defining the sound of the mainstream (as he did for the better part of a decade, scoring 14 Top 10 hits between 1986’s “Guitars, Cadillacs” and 1993’s “Fast As You”) to exploring the more artistically daring territory on the genre’s fringes. Like fellow early-‘90s radio staple and Kentucky native Patty Loveless, Yoakam’s recent loss of mainstream support ultimately speaks to how thoroughly his work outclasses what the major labels in Nashville typically release.
Yoakam built his career on a unique, polished blend of golden-era country and the Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens, and he’s been an artist of remarkable consistency, with each of his albums rating within varying degrees of their respective years’ essential country releases. But Yoakam is at his most compelling when he’s willing to toy with his proven formula—as on 2000’s unfortunately-titled dwightyoakamacoustic.net or 1995’s flat-out brilliant Gone—and his latest, Blame the Vain, ranks as one of his most diverse, adventurous recordings and handily among the year’s strongest country albums. Working as his own producer for the first time, Yoakam incorporates seemingly disparate elements—from the rockabilly of the clever “Three Good Reasons” to the bongos (courtesy of Motown’s Bobbye Hall) on lead single “Intentional Heartache”—into a variation on country music that is, for its idiosyncrasies, irrefutably his own.
Rather than letting this new authority go to his head, however, Yoakam retains his sense of humor, borne witness by the hilarious off-the-cuff spoken-word rant over the final guitar crescendo of “Intentional Heartache” and the bizarre, ‘70s glam introduction to the otherwise straight-up Southern rock number “She’ll Remember,” wherein Yoakam affects an accent that sounds disconcertingly like Velvet Goldmine‘s Brian Slade. It’s absurd, sure, but it also uncovers yet another facet of Yoakam’s inimitable voice. He’s hardly been in a rut—his last album, 2003’s Population: Me, offered a career-best ballad in the gorgeous “The Back of Your Hand”—but Blame the Vain nonetheless represents a new peak in a career full of them and is Yoakam’s finest work in a decade.