Acclaimed vocalist Lee Ann Womack may invite certain put-downs on her long-delayed sixth studio album, Call Me Crazy, but she should have extended that title to her producer, Nashville veteran Tony Brown, as well, since they both come across as somewhat unbalanced here. While her previous album, There’s More Where That Came From, earned raves for a lush, traditional countrypolitan production that was a perfect fit for Womack’s hard-country sense of phrasing, her latest effort is characterized by a stylistic diversity and an insistence on playing against her strengths. As a follow-up to a record that seemed like a confident declaration of artistic identity, Crazy is confused and conflicted. Taken in the context of Womack’s career as a whole, however, it’s fairly representative of how she has vacillated between sterling, smart traditional cuts like “The Fool” and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” and vapid Faith Hill knockoffs like “Something Worth Leaving Behind” and “Why They Call It Falling.”
Cuts like “Either Way” and lead single “Last Call” sound like a logical extension of More, in that Brown uses a lighter touch with their traditional production, keeping the focus on Womack’s typically understated performances. But those songs are found side-by-side with the contemporary country-pop of the treacly “I Found It in You” and album closer “The Story of My Life.” Though Womack’s best-known song is the adult-contemporary crossover hit “I Hope You Dance,” that style doesn’t always work with her natural gifts and the songs she’s recorded in that vein here simply aren’t of the same caliber. One of the best-written songs on the album is “The Bees,” which is given a progressive, new wave-inflected production that drives its lilting, familiar melody with a slap bass and a muffled drum loop. While traditionalists will inevitably bristle at the track, its relative subtlety makes it one of the album’s sonic experiments that actually work.
Since Brown’s production choices misfire roughly one-third of the time and few of the songs are as interesting as “Bees,” that leaves the bulk of the heavy lifting to Womack. Though her voice sounds thin when compared to that of Patty Loveless or Trisha Yearwood, Womack is a first-rate stylist and one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation, so she is able to carry the album even when the production and the songwriting fail her. There’s real emotional complexity, a heady blend of determination and regret, to her performance on “Last Call” that goes a long way toward overcoming the awkward, clipped meter of the single’s would-be hook (“I’ll bet you’re in a bar/‘Cause I’m always your last call”), and she breathes fire into the clichéd honky-tonk shuffle of “If These Walls Could Talk” and conveys a melancholic sense of vulnerability and self-doubt on “Have You Seen That Girl.”
Of course, at this point in her career, there is little lingering doubt as to Womack’s talent, so Crazy doesn’t prove any new points regarding her strengths as a hard-country vocalist. But there are still questions about her place in the genre: While she’s repeatedly shown that few contemporary singers can match her skill with traditional country styles and that she sounds strident and unconvincing as a crossover country-pop diva, Womack, for whatever reason, is still trying to cover both of those bases equally. Insanity is often defined as repeating the same behavior and expecting different results, so perhaps Call Me Crazy is aptly named.