Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
If you find yourself in conversation with Nashville’s Michaela Anne, ask yourself: Has she told me she wants my opinion? If yes, then you already know. If no, you’re probably better off hanging onto your thoughts until she tells you she’s interested in them. Anne isn’t rude or prickly about her feelings: She’s just direct, which is a good thing, because without directness, you’d most likely cross a line and make a fool of yourself in front of her.
That’s the thesis of “If I Wanted Your Opinion,” one of the closing stretch tracks on her third album, Desert Dove. Rather than a signature track—a song that defines Anne’s intent on the work as a whole—it’s a demonstrative track. Blunt as the title and chorus are, they’re delivered via what most people think of when they think of country music—that neoclassical chipper, uptempo quality. But that’s an unalloyed good: That familiarity makes “If I Want Your Opinion” a perfect gateway song for country-averse types, or at least the country-agnostic, who think they understand what country music sounds like but haven’t necessarily heard that sound as curated by talented, thoughtful musicians. It’s sort of like craft beer; the uninitiated hear “double dry-hopped IPA” and get immediately antsy, but hand them a meticulously brewed lager and they’re happy.
So, basically, Desert Dove is the craft lager of country albums: smooth, crisp to the ear, beautifully rendered art from an artist who with each outing continues to refine her voice. The title hints at a gentle character, and Anne certainly showcases that. But as “If I Want Your Opinion” makes clear, she doesn’t deal with bullshit, which is maybe why there’s none of that on the record. Instead, Desert Dove thrives on clarity of purpose and craftsmanship: Anne’s voice rings pristine from one song to the next, clean and clarion, never wavering, never striking false notes.
Even on the messiest songs like “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy),” transparency is critical. On the first verse, Anne talks about an old friend who ditched her without any explanation. On the second, she worries her lover will follow suit. In between both, she takes the burden of fault for her own abandonment. Honestly, the way that country music functions, it’s probably a bit of column A and a bit of column B; the “Crazy” is key, but also not a terribly good reason to turn one’s back on a loved one. Still, Anne’s work here centers on accountability, filtered through a musical romanticism expressed through sweet, celestial violin accompaniment and an otherwise muted arrangement from her band.
“Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy)” offers the flip side of a preceding track, “I’m Not the Fire.” Here, Anne calls out her lover (at least judging by repeated use of “baby” as an endearment) for his own self-destructive behavior. “You blame it on everything I do / But baby, it starts and it ends with you,” she sweetly trills. Similarly, on “If I Wanted Your Opinion,” she’s to-the-point while maintaining a gracious demeanor, leaving no room to mistake her meaning while staying on the high road. Dulcet and well-mannered she may be, but that, combined with her plain-spokenness, makes her unimpeachable. You don’t want to mess with Anne, but then again, how would you even start if you did?
That core, tender strength provides Desert Dove its throughline. This is the story of a remarkably resilient woman, who knows well that the path she’s chosen to walk isn’t an easy one (as outlined on “By Our Design”), who knows heartache well (“One Heart”) and who’s never less than her authentic self at all times. Nashville’s country output in 2019 is staggering in its consistent excellence, but listening through Desert Dove affirms the best element of the city’s contemporary scene: Each of its artists know who they are and can articulate that selfhood beautifully through their work. The same is true for Anne. She’s no-nonsense. She’s tough. She’s witty. Above all else, however, she’s arrived at a place of peace. Remember: She’s a dove.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.