In many ways the culmination of a career built largely on decisions that seemed tailor-made to bait hard questions about her motivations, Martina McBride’s Timeless is uncommonly bizarre, an album that exists in something of a vacuum, indifferent to the whole of popular music and immune to most criticism. To assign it any “star” rating at all makes less sense than giving it, say, “giraffe out of 5 stars.” It’s bad bad bad bad bad, but McBride is so committed, both as vocalist and producer, to its uncompromised awfulness that there’s something admirable about the album.
It’s astonishing, really, to consider the balls it takes to release a covers album with a song selection taken straight from a Country Music for Dummies primer (“You Win Again,” “Make The World Go Away,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and so on), and to rerecord those songs using vintage equipment with almost identical production ranging from the hard country of Hank Williams to the polished countrypolitan of Tammy Wynette, and to deliver the vocals for those songs with note-for-note faithfulness to the original arrangements.
McBride’s been awarded the Country Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” title four times, largely because the technical perfection of her voice makes it easy to ignore what a limited interpreter she is, and Timeless foregrounds that weakness. She can hit all of the right notes on Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and Tammy Wynette’s “‘Til I Can Make It On My Own,” but she lacks the intangibles—Loretta’s authenticity, the “tear” in Tammy’s voice—that separate the very good singers, which McBride certainly is, from the great vocalists, which she is not. To wit, McBride’s version of “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” sounds flawless, except that she delivers a deceptively complicated lyric with a uniformly dead-eyed cheerfulness. She doesn’t embarrass herself on every track—her take on Charlie Walker’s “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” is legitimately not half-bad—and her calculated, steely precision will continue to amaze her sizable fanbase.
For the unconverted, it’s comforting that McBride mercifully tones down her glorynote belting tendencies; while she usually peddles “loud” as an emotion, here she goes for melisma. It’s downright miraculous that, for the first album in her career, McBride hasn’t recorded a song about abused women or children with wasting diseases. While that’s cause for celebration of its own accord, Timeless still plays like one of the American Idol compilation albums, impossible to view as anything more than enthusiastic, pitch-perfect karaoke and inessential in direct comparison to the source material.