Since rebooting her career with the Grammy-winning I Am Shelby Lynne, Shelby Lynne has rarely unleashed the huge, evocative alto or made use of the peerless interpretive skills that were her calling cards during her stint as a country singer. But on Revelation Road, her third studio album in under two years, there are a handful of moments when Lynne lets the full power of her instrument take center stage. It’s the range Lynne brings back into her repertoire that elevates Revelation Road above its otherwise tepid Americana trappings.
Though she’s often praised for her genre-hopping, albums like Identity Crisis, Suit Yourself, and Tears, Lies, and Alibis have all found Lynne settling into a comfortable, low-key Americana niche over the last decade. Revelation Road, like so many other albums of its ilk, quickly establishes a pleasant midtempo shuffle and sticks to it for the bulk of its running time. As producer and sole credited instrumentalist on the relatively spare album, it’s ultimately Lynne can only be faulted for the lackluster production. Her DIY approach is admirable to a certain extent, but her workmanlike acoustic guitar strumming on “The Thief” and “I Don’t Need a Reason to Cry” never rises above competent and the tropical-themed arrangement of “Lead Me Love” sounds like the music from a Sandals Resorts commercial.
The title track, which opens the album with its most layered and unconventional arrangement, draws the dullness of the rest of Revelation Road into sharp relief. With a phase-shifted, looped lead-guitar figure, staccato percussion line, and occasional minor-key drops, the song gives the false hope that the album may be Lynne’s most progressive since I Am Shelby Lynne. Instead, “Revelation Road” settles for being one of the best individual songs Lynne has ever recorded, as the singer reveals cockeyed insights and casual philosophies before belting the final refrains with a real sense of empowerment. It’s stirring stuff, really, and it makes the more straightforward confessional songwriting and the safe, coffeehouse production of the remainder of the album a letdown.
There are isolated moments in which Lynne’s songwriting seems to address the troubled past she’s long avoided publicly confronting: She addresses a character as “Sissy,” the name she uses in interviews to refer to younger sister and fellow recording artist Allison Moorer, in the guarded make-a-run-for-it narrative of “I’ll Hold Your Hand,” and the haunting “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road” speaks of avenging the kind of murder-suicide that’s famously part of Lynne’s family history. Though the references are still guarded and oblique, it’s these moments of personal revelation that are the album’s strongest. A song like “Even Angels,” with its clichéd images and turns of phrase (“Even angels fall sometimes” is its refrain) simply doesn’t hold up in comparison to Lynne’s more intimate writing.
“Woebegone” suffers from the same lapses, making references to a crystal ball and a failed relationship, but Lynne salvages the song with a gutsy, raw performance. As a proper blues-rock number, it’s the only song on the album other than “Revelation Road” with a real pulse, and Lynne absolutely wails the song’s chorus (“When I wake up and see me cryin’/Woe be gone”) with authority and conviction. Ultimately, Revelation Road needed more of that passion and range.