Shelby Lynne has always been a genre-bending artist, and it’s been more than just a show of breadth; she uses her broad palette to mask a darker song’s intention or turn a bummer of a title like “Life Is Bad” into a hell-raising party. Lynne is one of the few contemporary country figures interested in keying her music to the acute emotional expressions of her lyrics, and self-producing and releasing her last couple of albums allowed her to mine the depths of a very dark past in ways her tenure signed to major labels apparently never permitted. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an album more staunchly Shelby-on-her-own-terms than 2011’s Revelation Road, on which she played all the instruments and delivered a jaw-dropping account of the night her father murdered her mother.
Lynne’s new album, I Can’t Imagine, arriving four long years later and released on indie label Rounder Records, is a decidedly lighter affair. Recorded in the Vermilion Bayou of Louisiana with her regular touring band, from a set of largely self-penned songs amassed back in 2012, I Can’t Imagine offers the smoothest peripheral play of any Lynne album since her 2008 Dusty Springfield tribute, which is both a pleasure and a pox. Though opener “Paper Van Gogh” offers a searing salvo (“I threw these colors down in a fit of rage/My feelings hardly fit onto the page”) that doesn’t fit the gentle, raga-esque track that follows or the laidback set of songs it prefaces, there are plenty examples of the superior studio craft that often graced Lynne’s past label-funded efforts. Co-written by new NRBQ member Pete Donnelly, “Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” is formally impeccable pop-soul, see-sawing between opposing forces (“seas are in control”; “gravity plays a part”) with a sensual vocal that turns tricks all over its tight groove. And “Love Is Strong,” composed with Ron Sexsmith, likewise gets a lot of mileage out of sparse but evocative writing (“singin’ from the rafters”; “waterfalls of laughter”) and a vocal that first exudes swaggering sexuality, but gradually lifts its fervent mantra toward something decisively spiritual—like Al Green breaking from secular love by belting to his “Belle” that “It’s you that I want, but Him that I need.”
Lynne’s best songs tend to offer a light, unobtrusive craft, with the express purpose of allowing intimate engagement with her formidable interpretive singing. But integral to that success has been a proven facility with melodies worth engaging. With that in mind, a song like “Back Door Front Porch” is a stinging disappointment. Dragging its feet through four-and-a-half minutes of acoustic meanderings and a chorus that feels almost stumbled into, it’s the worst possible outcome to Lynne’s more ponderous, feel-your-way-through approach to songwriting, cycling through half-hearted recollection rhymes and landing on what’s barely a metaphor for a nostalgic homecoming. It’s one of several occasions on I Can’t Imagine where Lynne opts for uncharacteristically hazy sprawl over her usual tight focus. “Son of a Gun” stretches past the five-minute mark for a drifter’s tale lacking the dynamic build to justify the investment, and “Better” should be the big cathartic center of the album, exorcising its narrator of a man she’s better without, but puts too much of that work on Lynne’s words and soft-rock-style backup cooing.
All this feels like a miscalculation. As the closing title track makes all too clear, with gorgeous pedal steel and a melody welling with distinctive lilt, Lynne’s entirely capable of bending this Southern folk-band sound to the same soulful wills as her more solo-oriented, regionally non-specific albums. Had she toned down some idiosyncrasies and worried a handful of these songs past what sounds like their draft stages, I Can’t Imagine could’ve been a real coup for Lynne, proving that the record labels need her as decisively as she’s proven she doesn’t need them.