It’s been more than a decade since Kelly Willis’ last individual effort, Translated From Love, and remarkably (her two recordings with husband and producer Bruce Robison aside) Being Blue is only her seventh solo album in a career spanning nearly three decades. Her track record does little to trumpet her prolific prowess, and it’s evident with this new record that she carefully considers each outing with more regard to quality than frequency.
Given the fact that Willis wrote six of these 10 songs and enlisted Rodney Crowell and Randy Weeks for two of the others, that level of proficiency qualifies her for some special distinction. Willis’ allegiance to country tradition and homespun homilies may not find her tampering with the formula, but they do suggest she’s a relevant player regardless. On songs such as “Don’t Step Away,” “Modern World” and “What the Heart Doesn’t Know,” she states her case with a conviction that all but guarantees her authenticity.
“Out there in the crowd where the race is won/Everybody struggling to be someone,” she coos on “Don’t Step Away,” suggesting she’s out for acknowledgement, if only through purpose and determination. That’s evident in both her competence, attitude and a sound conveyed through an easy lilt and an ample dose of divine sentiment. Most of the songs touch on the usual topics having to do with lost love, dashed romance and musings about life’s setbacks and circumstance, but Willis puts them across in ways that are both personal and profound.
Granted, she gets help from an impressive ensemble, Eleanor Whitmore (The Mastersons and Steve Earle and the Dukes), Mark Spencer (Son Volt) and Trevor Nealon (Band of Heathens) included. Nevertheless, her ability to effusively emote on such offerings as “Only You” and “Modern World” bring about a clarity that’s all her own. Back Being Blue may reflect a sadder state of mind, but there’s no denying that it still shines all the same.