Shelby Lynne: “Tears, Lies & Alibis”
Americana is a tricky term. The word itself suggests a culture, a sense of history, a sense of place. It suggests tradition, following in the footprints of giants– which means that, for many, it’s a word synonymous with art and culture that dutifully mimics the giants in their every step. But the best Americana isn’t like that: The really good stuff earns its name through the invocation of a weird, idiosyncratic people, as manifest in weird, idiosyncratic lives. This is Shelby Lynne: She makes personal Americana, music that bends the tropes of culture and history to the whims of her personality, her vision.
Her latest, Tears, Lies & Alibis, is the personal vision of Americana she’s been working toward for years. Self-produced and, for the first time, self-released, Tears is a neat ten-song set that comes and goes in 37 minutes, and in that span, refines the swampy mix of country-blues, southern soul, and pop she made seem to effortless on Suit Yourself— with a few lessons learned from her Dusty Springfield tribute album thrown in for good measure. The record begins with a couple of bouncy, sassy pop songs that bend elastic melodies over brass and keys straight out of Memphis. After that, it locks in for a stretch of lazy, humid, back-porch strumming, heavy on ballads and thick with bawdy country atmosphere. The album was recorded primarily in Lynne’s basement, and sounds like an informal pickin’ session. Horns and steel guitars, mixed in after the fact, call out like ghostly, spectral voices from somewhere in the bayou.
It sounds on paper like a natural follow-up to Suit Yourself, but on record not quite like anything she’s ever done. Lynne has never sounded more confident as a record-maker, or more assured as a singer; if the Dusty sessions taught her anything, it’s to trust her own instincts as a storyteller and a singer, and indeed, it’s amazing how much of the story she conveys with her own voice. Incidentally a companion piece to sister Allison Moorer’s recent Crows— simpler, but no less sophisticated, and perhaps more compelling overall– the album has a cyclical feel, moving from heartache to flight, then circling back again for a return home. She plays with archetypes we know well– “Alibi” is a cheatin’ song, “Something to Be Said” a ramblin’ song, “Old #7” a drinkin’ song– but she reveals these forms to be malleable in her hands, bending them into something that’s partly classic American music, partly Shelby Lynne’s own handiwork.
The album is drenched in sweet sadness and soul, and performed by an artist who knows well enough to let those things carry the record; she keeps things compact and cut close to the bone, meaning that it’s the songs that stand out more than anything else, and the album doesn’t wear out its welcome but lingers even after it stops playing. In other words: Listening to it is an experience, and an affecting one at that. There’s something to be said for ambition, but just as much for restraint; this is Shelby Lynne’s masterpiece of self-discipline, a short and sweet album that transforms tradition through her miraculous singing, and if it isn’t her most ambitious album ever, it might be her most powerful.