Less an “album” than a goddamn dissertation on everything rotten at the core of mainstream country music, Faith Hill’s Fireflies, rest assured, will rank as her sixth multi-platinum record and will likely sweep the country field at the Grammy awards come February. That it is so utterly without substance—it’s some kind of engineering marvel that the CD itself doesn’t have to be tethered to the ground—certainly won’t deter NARAS, People, and Entertainment Weekly (who stand to profit whenever Hill’s visage graces their covers), or Hill’s legion of fans from shouting me down to the contrary, but Fireflies is flat-out terrible, the end-all be-all example of how the major labels on music row have diluted the soul out of an entire genre of vital popular music.
For all its many flaws, Fireflies’ greatest liability is the stench of desperation that overpowers it. Hill’s career has been characterized by fashionably late trend-hopping. Her first two albums, Take Me As I Am and It Matters To Me, consisted of the high-gloss pop-country popularized by Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, and Lorrie Morgan in the early ’90s; other than her uncommonly gorgeous face, there was nothing about her music that set Hill apart from her contemporaries. When Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes beat her to the Hot AC crossover game and to the stages of VH1’s Divas Live lineups, Hill’s sound followed suit with the treacly adult contemporary schmaltz of “This Kiss” and Breathe. (Hoping to capitalize on the bajillion-selling success of the album, Hill remained in the public eye by screaming the god-awful powerballad anthems from two of the most contemptible blockbuster films in recent memory, Opie’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Dread Lord Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.)
Hill’s follow-up, though, was the first critical misstep of her career, at least commercially. Not realizing that the “pop diva” scene had run its course, Hill released her most overtly Celine Dion-inspired album Cry. Though it inexplicably won Grammy awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Album, the album sold less than half of its predecessor, and it failed to produce a single Top 10 hit at country radio, indicative of both the album’s less-than-middling quality and the country establishment’s reaction to Hill’s pants-on-fire, “I’ve never been just a country artist” interview routine.
Now, three years later, Hill has reemerged with an album that, once again, finds her hopping on the latest popular bandwagon, hoping to capitalize on trends other artists have started without having to come up with anything the least bit interesting or innovative of her own. Even Fireflies’ packaging makes this clear—Hill has dyed her blond hair a deep auburn, the same shade of color as Gretchen Wilson’s, Jo Dee Messina’s, Terri Clark’s, and Sara Evans’s tresses. Wilson, Messina, Clark, and Evans, incidentally, are the only women to score a #1 country single in the past three years. Surely, though, this must be a mere coincidence, and Fireflies is another step in Hill’s ongoing evolution into a standards singer, right?
The Southern-fried production of lead single “Mississippi Girl,” however, immediately puts to rest any questions as to whether Hill might choose to do her own thing, rather than to ape shamelessly the things that the women who supplanted her at the top of Nashville’s pecking order have been doing for the past year. It’s written by John Rich, after all, the latter half of Big & Rich and the man responsible for nearly all of Wilson’s success. And, as a declaration of artistic identity, “Mississippi Girl” couldn’t be more dead-on accurate. It’s hardly a surprise at this point that Hill, a complete cipher having been perfectly cast as a Stepford Wife (which is referenced in the head-slappingly stupid second-verse of “Mississippi Girl”), would completely miss the point of the criticisms against Cry and couldn’t even muster a writing credit on her version of “Jenny From The Block.”
Now, country music is filled with artists who don’t often write their own material, and there’s absolutely value to be found in excellent interpretive singers, which Nashville actually has in bountiful supply. Emmylou Harris has deservedly earned legendary status both within and beyond the country genre with her heady interpretations of difficult songs. Yearwood remains the best pure singer, the combination of power, range, and a sense of phrasing, currently recording in any popular genre, and she has an ear for exceptional material. Even Hill’s husband, Tim McGraw, has made a career by emoting all the livelong day, though with the songs he chooses, he’s often trying a bit too hard. Hill, on the other hand, peaked very early as an interpretive singer, on the title track to her sophomore album It Matters To Me. Though she’s made a concerted effort to improve her vocals since then— she attempts (though, as the end of “Mississippi Girl” demonstrates, not always successfully) to hit notes that she wouldn’t have dared to try earlier in her career, and she’s developed a full lower-register that keeps her recent performances from sounding as girlish as “Wild One” or her “Let’s Go To Vegas.” And, while putting in that kind of work is certainly admirable, the attention to the technical aspects of her voice allowed her ability to interpret a song to atrophy. There isn’t a break in her voice anywhere on Fireflies that doesn’t sound fundamentally calculated, and she sings her lyrics as though she learned them phonetically, like Christina Aguilera’s ill-conceived efforts at singing in Spanish.
This, of course, would be a more significant problem if Fireflies contained any songs that might genuinely merit such consideration as subtlety or nuance. The twangy “Dearly Beloved,” for instance, is a bald-faced stab at the ribald perfection of both the Dixie Chicks’ “White Trash Wedding” and Trick Pony’s “The Bride,” filtered through the same neo-con mentality that has made Wilson’s brand of feminism so inherently dishonest (there’s a line about “the effects of sex and alcohol” that should play well in the red states). The first line of the title track is, “Before you met me, I was a fairy princess,” which Hill sings without a trace of self-awareness, and the song, one of three on Fireflies written by Lori McKenna, shares the same central image as the year’s best country single, Miranda Lambert’s “Me and Charlie Talking,” without sharing even a shred of the complexity or resonance of Lambert’s offering. The inevitable duet with McGraw, “Like We Never Loved At All,” is a significant step forward from their previous effort, the smarmy “Let’s Make Love,” but that’s a compliment so backhanded it could dislocate a shoulder.
The songs, then, live or die on the strengths of their melodic hooks and production values. And, though its lyrics completely eschew such trivialities as the meter of the song—the kind of weakness, again, that Hill isn’t a good enough interpreter to overcome—“Mississippi Girl” does have a memorable enough melody, as does the cheerful if empty-headed opener, “Sunshine And Summertime.” Generally, the uptempo tracks fare better than do the ballads, and if executive producer Byron Gallimore’s decision to foreground the occasional banjo on what would otherwise be an adult contemporary ballad is disingenuous, it’s at least successful in making Fireflies sound indistinguishable from recent lackluster efforts by Jamie O’Neal or Deana Carter, or from the dead-eyed Teddy Ruxpin who won the fourth season of American Idol, who might as well be renamed “Faith Hill, v. 2.0.”
What’s ultimately so disheartening about Fireflies is the extent to which it will be championed as a return to (a never-existent) form by a capital-A artist (who doesn’t even merit the lower-case designation as such), and as a benchmark for what mainstream country can and should be. The last few years have seen a refreshing infusion of artistic integrity into the country mainstream, with artists like Julie Roberts, Evans, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Lambert all making music that, at its best, fully holds its own in comparison to the gritty, soulful work of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. And, though their shtick is sociologically loaded to an almost impossible degree, Big & Rich have made it commercially and critically viable for major label country artists to attempt to defy the genre’s mainstream conventions. Faith Hill and Fireflies bring nothing new to the table but a particularly shrewd marketing strategy. Hill has nothing of her own to say, nor does she say anyone else’s words with any insight or conviction. That adding some steel guitar to Fireflies’ relentless tripe is being sold with greater efficacy than Hill sells said tripe as a credibility maneuver is nothing short of appalling, even by Nashville’s standards of beating dead horses. There are too many other sources of optimism to view the album as a harbinger of doom for country’s recent, unexpected artistic resurgence, but it’s a nadir both for Nashville’s golden empress and for the genre she embraces only when it stands to profit her most.