Having cemented her status as a country music icon as half of legendary duo the Judds, and with a couple of phenomenal, adventurous solo albums in the early ‘90s, Wynonna hasn’t done much to enhance her legacy of late. In fact, much of her output over the last decade—from uneven, strident studio albums that included dead-serious Foreigner covers and collaborations with the useless John Rich to countless televised live performances punctuated with spoken-word platitudes dedicated to all her “sisterfriends”—has been so affected that it’s easy to forget the true extent of her talent. Despite a handful of moments that suggest she’s still taking performance cues from drag queens, Sing: Chapter 1, her seventh proper solo album, goes quite a long way toward reversing that trend.
What has always made Wynonna such a vital artist is the way she incorporates her love of vintage R&B, pop, and blues into a deeply traditional take on country music, and Sing lays her influences bare in a way that she’s never previously committed to record. If the breadth of those influences keeps the set from being as focused as Patty Loveless’s Sleepless Nights, a recent benchmark for covers records, Wy’s album is no less a showcase for a remarkable vocal stylist. From the throaty growl she brings to a riotous take on Fats Domino’s “I Hear You Knockin’” and the sense of bereavement in her reading of the oft-covered “Ain’t No Sunshine” to her languid phrasing on a haunting rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and the unrivaled swagger on “I’m a Woman,” Wynonna genuinely challenges herself on these songs and, in doing so, reasserts her place as a premier interpretive singer. There’s an uninhibited sense of joy that comes across on the album’s best performances: The Andrews Sisters style bounce of the ragtime-y “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” and the sultry cautionary tale of “Women, Be Wise” are flat-out revelatory.
Still, the singer’s instincts occasionally fail her. While there’s certainly no faulting Wynonna for wanting to include a song by Merle Haggard, the cultural references on “Are the Good Times Really Gone for Good” are dated and its hand-wringing brand of nostalgia is badly out of sync with the contemporary zeitgeist. Moreover, her bombastic, gospel-inflected delivery of this particular Haggard song comes across as pandering and just isn’t believable. Even worse is the campy spoken-word coda she tags onto “‘Til I Get It Right”: Wynonna’s ham-fisted sense of the dramatic induces eye rolling about as efficiently as does that of her sister Ashley. If there’s nothing here as offensive and misguided as Twisted, the overall quality of the project makes a misfire like the banal “When I Fall In Love” stand out all the more.
Sing is such an interesting project, though, because there’s a real honesty to the whole of it, including the parts that are kind of insufferable. No one could deny Wynonna’s affinity for this kind of dinner-theater drama: If that’s unfortunate, there’s something to be said for how she takes full ownership of her bad taste and even provides an explanation for its origins. That the album illustrates—again, for the first time in a long while—that she also has some impeccable taste to balance out the camp affect makes Sing a welcome return to form.