I threw these colors down in a fit of rage/
My feelings hardly fit onto the page
It’s starts, as always, with that voice. Two parts Alabama sunshine; one part Memphis rainstorm, it’s one of the most gorgeous sounding instruments in all of popular music.
Cloudy memories make for darker grays/
But blue is how I paint myself today
So begins Shelby Lynne’s 13th full-length album I Can’t Imagine, quite possibly the most brilliantly crafted and intensely affecting set of compositions since her landmark collection I Am Shelby Lynne in 2000.
Comprising 10 new songs written or co-written by the GRAMMY winning vocalist, I Can’t Imagine is powered by Lynne’s lustrous, virtuosic vocal performance, her indelible, sparkling songwriting, and the sympathetic, versatile playing of a top-flight band, led by Los Angeles based guitarist Ben Peeler.
The songs themselves reflect a panoply of Lynne’s influences – from Southern soul, Crescent City R&B, and California country & western to the ardent social consciousness of precursors like Woody Guthrie and even the roots ‘n blues vocalizing of Billie Holiday – all brought into clear focus by Lynne’s keen pop sensibility.
According to Lynne, the songs were mostly written in a swift burst in 2012. Asked what was going on in her life at the time, she replies, “What wasn’t going on? There are always twists and a turns.” Besides five songs composed solo by Lynne, the album includes two tracks (“Love is Strong” and “Be in the Now”) co-written by Ron Sexsmith and three authored with Lynne’s band mates --
“Better” and “I Can’t Imagine” with Philadelphia guitarist/keyboardist Pete Donnelly and “Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” with Peeler.
As is apparent throughout her best work, Lynne dissects some dense emotional landscape on I Can’t Imagine. The truth in these characters manifests in their struggle for wisdom and transcendence. The girl in “Back Door Front Porch” pushes against the intense pull of home and all of it’s memories, its a “goodbye to my past” Lynne says. The migrant worker in “Son of a Gun,” a poignant, finely detailed Depression-era portrait, delivers the searing lyric: “Hunkered down low/Under a bridge/The voice in my belly/ Is my only friend.” “That’s a passion of mine, the Great Depression,” she says of the song. “It’s a tribute to that generation -- they’re my grandparents, but it could be today. I drew that parallel when I was writing it.” Lynne captures the ephemeral nature of innocence in “Following You,” adding, “that one is about my daddy – shooting squirrels in the woods with him when I was 11.” Reflecting on “Down Here,” a razor-edged southern rocker Lynne said, “When I read stories about people in the South throwing out their kids for being gay, I say, ‘What the ?’” The broken woman at the heart of “Better,” an exquisite, spaced-out L.A. country ballad, chants “It’s better that you’re gone” like a mantra. “She’s never gonna be right,” Lynne acknowledges.
“We all have to find our own inner Van Gogh,” she says of album opener “Paper Van Gogh.” The song is like my self-portrait. I’ll never be perfect, but in art’s eyes everything is perfect.”
To record I Can’t Imagine, the Virginia-born, Alabama-bred Lynne – who has lived in Southern California for the last 16 years – returned to the South, to the intimate Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana (population: 642). “It’s right on the Vermilion Bayou,” Lynne says.
As she has on four of her last five albums (the exception being the memorable 2008 Dusty Springfield recital Just a Little Lovin’, helmed by the late Phil Ramone), Lynne produced the new album herself. Her method is simple, she says: “This is what we do: ‘Everybody’s here? Great. This is how the song goes.’ Push ‘Record.’ Hell yes, it was organic. I don’t know how to do anything else. When you call the right people to the party, and the vibe is right, the song will go where it needs to go. It will take itself there, and if you’re smart, you’ll go along where it takes you.”
In addition to Peeler and Donnelly, the core members include drummer Michael Jerome, the longtime anchor of singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson’s group, and bassist Ed Maxwell (Joe Purdy, Gary Jules). I Can’t Imagine is also graced by the presence of talented singer/songwriter Clarence Greenwood, better known as Citizen Cope, who adds beautiful background vocals to three tracks “Back Door Front Porch,” “Down Here” and “Better.”
Lynne assembled the players on I Can’t Imagine with an eye towards touring her new music. “I could get a studio band to do this, but it’s not going to be the same thing,” she says. “It’s not going to be me. I’ve done those fancy records. My guys were the perfect recipe.”
Plans call for her to mount a double-barreled live show that will take in her best-known early work and the new album, in their entirety. “I’m going to tour this record, and I’m going to do I Am Shelby Lynne in the same show - one long two-hour show. I want to give people their money’s worth. No intermission, two great albums. Boom!”
“I am once again humbled by the places music has taken me,” she reveals in the album’s liner notes. “These songs I’ve lived, and now told, and I’m grateful.”
I Can’t Imagine anything better.