Playing an intimate show in Los Angeles the weekend before her new album's release, Shelby Lynne noted that songwriters are usually advised to hold something back -- but this time I just decided to tell the whole damn thing, she said, nervously laughing.
At another point, Lynne reminded the McCabe's crowd that, in her new songs, she was discussing things that I don't even talk about to people I like.
If you know about Lynne's troubled family history, the potential to hear something so deeply autobiographical in Revelation Road might sound both promising and potentially daunting. This is a woman who lost her parents to a murder-suicide, which she personally witnessed.
The youthful trauma has been understandably off-limits over the years, but, sure enough, that ultimate taboo subject gets addressed in Road's most startling song.
As the album's penultimate tune and emotional climax, Heaven's Only Days Down the Road is written from the point of view of her late father, setting out with murder on his mind. Hundred or so miles from the Mobile River/Lord I can't have her so I got to kill her, she begins, and you can hardly believe what you're hearing.
Can't blame the whiskey or my mammy's ways/Two little girls are better off this way, she adds in the final stanza, before frantic acoustic guitar strumming gives way to two muted pops that might go unnoticed by the casual listener.
Lynne isn't out to sensationalize this particular revelation: Press materials for the new album make no mention of the subject matter, and it didn't seem to capture the notice of anyone reviewing the album in the days leading up to its release. In her weekend show, Lynne said she was trying to write about her father out of a place of love and understanding -- and that's an attitude that permeates even the less provocative moments of Revelation Road, certainly the most mature effort of her 12-album career.
In most of her work since she famously switched from country to rock with her 2000 breakthrough, I Am … Shelby Lynne (still one of the greatest albums of the last 20 years), she's focused on obsessive love and its bitter aftermath. And it would hardly be a Lynne album without at least a handful of those deeply romantically rueful tracks, including The Thief and Toss It All Aside.
But she's got some bigger fish to fry this time, starting with the title track, where she pits the fire-and-brimstone religionists she presumably grew up around in Alabama against the spiteful sinners she probably rubs up against a bit more of in her current California climes -- and finds both wanting.
Bible beaters rest your fists, haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute, unconscious to the choir, she sings. But I can't hold that against you, man/You're on Revelation Road.
It's hard to imagine any song that could address today's culture wars with more sweetly bemused, we're-in-this-mystery-together mutual forgiveness.
Family is a recurring theme, for both better and worse. The happiest number is I'll Hold Your Head, in which Lynne recalls the car trips where she, her sister (singer Allison Moorer), and their mother used to pick out three-part harmonies from the country songs they heard on the radio. Faint snippets of the old standard Side by Side are heard in the background, and it's a fairly heartbreaking, if almost subliminal, touch.
Family troubles in the Lynne family didn't end with the aforementioned distant tragedy, apparently. At her weekend shows, the singer talked about an incident in which extended family came to visit and then tore off down the driveway in their Winnebago after an argument, never to be seen again.
That incident, she said, inspired some of the more depressing new material, including a song whose chorus goes: I want to go back so I can leave again. Anyone with a love/hate relationship with the kin will relate.
Revelation Road hardly marks the first time that Lynne has tended toward sadness. (Even her Christmas album last year included an anthem for Xmas depressives.) That history of sorrow in song culminates in I Don't Need a Reason to Cry, where she sings, Don't know why it's broke … My heart just told me now's the time to frown. You almost have to laugh at how perfectly she captures the melancholy temperament.
Maybe we don't need a reason to listen and cry along, but we've got one: Lynne has as rivetingly soulful a voice as any white woman working today, even if she's smart and subtle enough to keep her agility largely under wraps. And she's got the deceptively simple songwriting chops to give that alto something to do.
If Revelation Road isn't always so stylistically revelatory, it's because she recorded the whole thing herself, for the first time, as a one-woman band. That's a boon during the acoustic numbers that dominate the album, but a bane on the handful (like the title song) that are more fully arranged, since the drum-track programing sticks out like a sterile thumb. But being solitary in the studio may be what it took to come up with these more severe revelations, and sacrificing a few more organic snare fills was worth it.
If the sound of stark honesty is even remotely your bag, you'll want to follow Lynne's Road less taken.