More famous for being famous than for her modestly successful careers as a pop singer and actress, Jessica Simpson is but the latest erstwhile pop star to make a foray into the accommodating world of mainstream country. Unfortunately for Simpson, her debut album for the genre, Do You Know, only stands to perpetuate her problems of celebrity image and credibility. Though the first single, “Come On Over,” which borrows the title but none of the wit or strut from a Shania Twain hit, briefly cracked the Top 20 at country radio, the only memorable aspect about Simpson’s ostensible career reboot thus far has been a ridiculous feud she’s picked with Carrie Underwood.
Petty backbiting aside, it’s Underwood’s innocuous pop-country style that Simpson and producers John Shanks and Brett James have shamelessly tried to co-opt here. As far as its production values and songwriting are concerned (and Simpson’s multiple credits as the lead co-writer alongside professional Nashville songwriters like Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges, Rachel Proctor and Victoria Banks are more than just a trifle dubious), Do You Know is neither better nor worse than—and is as bland and forgettable a pop-country confection as—Julianne Hough’s recent debut. If it sounds more like a mainstream country record than Jewel’s Perfectly Clear, all that means is that Shanks and James have mixed the occasional steel guitar into what otherwise sounds a whole lot like Simpson’s own In This Skin.
While Jewel brought a certain degree of artistic cachet to the table, and Hough is able to coast by on her immense charm, Simpson, a tabloid fixture for most of the last decade and with a public persona that can most politely be called divisive, doesn’t have that luxury, which leaves her to carry her album on the strength of either the material or her performances. The material is simply lacking: Dolly Parton wrote the title track, but it’s not up to her usual standards, while “You’re My Sunday” so thoroughly fails to develop its central conceit that the title could be changed to “You’re My Sundae” and have the exact same effect, and “Remember That,” a knockoff of Martina McBride’s shrill domestic violence empowerment anthems, tacks on an inexplicable first-person coda that should have Nick Lachey looking into slander and libel statutes. “Pray Out Loud” even uses the same chord progression and a suspiciously similar melody as Jewel’s “Stronger Woman.” Simpson simply needed to choose (or “co-write”) better material than this.
Simpson isn’t able to salvage the effort with her performances either. She operates in precisely three modes as a singer: a mewling, whispered coo; a nasal, dead-eyed middle volume; and belting glory notes at full volume with a strangled, unappealing tone. She likely has the innate ability to be a competent technical singer, but Do You Know only foregrounds her present limitations as a vocalist. She switches between her three approaches seemingly at random over the course of individual songs, gasps awkwardly for breath in the middle of lines, and mistakes singing loudly for emoting, never letting the lyrics on “When I Loved You Like That” or the title track have any impact on her histrionics. That she’s also audibly at least a quarter-pitch sharp on at least half of the album actually makes a good case for the use of Autotune.
Given her A-list profile and C-list credentials and her laughable “real country girls eat meat” tête-à-tête with Underwood, Simpson really needed Do You Know to be a knockout punch of an album to establish herself as a bona fide country star. The album needed to speak for itself in terms of quality, which it simply fails to do. Curiosity and whatever remains of her pop fanbase will likely give Do You Know a strong start, but it’s hard to imagine that it will sustain any momentum or help Simpson build a reputation as a credible artist in Nashville. Assuming she gets the opportunity to make a follow-up, Simpson is going to have to find better collaborators and refine her technique if she wants to be famous for more than being a celebrity and an easy target.