With an indecent sense of timing, given that we’ve only recently featured her in “Forgotten Artists”, Shelby Lynne is back with a new solo album, her first in five years. The first thing that strikes you about this album is the cover, which seems to feature a very topical image of the singer wearing a face mask – but looks can be deceiving. It appears that this image came from a photoshoot with renowned photographer Amanda Demme back in January of this year. Lynne was asked to pull the collar of her white polo neck shirt up to cover her mouth and nose, an oddly prophetic image given what was to come! It’s a strange, if striking image but this album is a little strange in more ways than one.
The songs on the album are taken from an, as yet, unreleased movie, “When We Kill the Creators”. In the film Lynne stars as Tommy, a singer challenged by the difficulties of realising her artistic vision as well as the difficulties associated with the success of that vision. The film is the work of screenwriter and director Cynthia Mort, who also contributes lyrics to several of the songs on the album and, while the album isn’t billed as a soundtrack as such, it does have that feel in places. You suspect that some of these songs work better in a film concept and with a visual element to lend them more impact. A lot of the songs have clearly been written to fit a narrative and Cynthia Mort’s lyrics often seem to be there to contribute to a specific storyline, rather than as heartfelt song lyrics. As a result, it was interesting to discover that the songs that rang so clearly, for this reviewer, were the ones that were written by Shelby Lynne on her own.
The song ‘Weather’ could almost be a companion song to Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’. There’s something about the feel of the song that strikes a connection, the link between weather and emotions. Lynne did, of course, cover White’s song on 2005’s ‘Suit Yourself’ album and has worked with White on a number of occasions. The track has that Southern Soul feel that suits her voice so well – “I wonder why love came in/Like a blindsided man/All not give a damn/I can taste the weather/Stirring me up”. Another solo composition, ‘The Equation’ has a similar vibe to it, creeping up on you with a subtle organ playing in the background as it builds into a powerful song and ends on quite a clever guitar solo. These tracks both stand out along with the strongest of the co-writes, ‘Don’t Even Believe in Love’, another delicious slice of country soul with a slightly more upbeat tempo and some real bite to it. Shelby Lynne is at her best on this style of song; the ones that make the most of her husky voice and slightly drawled delivery. Where the songs don’t work so well is when she’s singing in the upper register of her voice, the delivery can become strident and a little jarring. As a result torch songs are not best suited to her style and that’s demonstrated on this album by the track ‘Here I Am’, which seems to sit a little uncomfortably with the other tracks and, given the subject matter of the film associated with this album, seems more like a statement from the movie than a song that you would usually associate with Shelby Lynne.
Musically, Lynne is on particularly fine form, contributing piano, bass, drums, guitar and even saxophone to various tracks on the album. She also produced the album and the sparse, simple arrangements are a highlight of her production here. Saxophone will be a first for followers of Lynne’s career as she, apparently, last played the instrument in her teens but she acquits herself well with some soft jazz passages on ‘My Mind’s Riot’. One of the things that is always admirable about this artist is that she’s not afraid to push boundaries and try something different.
‘Shelby Lynne’ is a good album but some of these songs will need time to grow on the listener. The movie could well be the key to a better understanding of this album and the creative processes behind it. That film is currently “awaiting a distribution deal” and it’ll be interesting to see what impact it has on perceptions of this album once it emerges. The enigma that is Shelby Lynne continues.