If the title of her new album is a tad portentous, Shelby Lynne is determined to make precisely detailed mood music, not a succession of revelatory moments, throughout Revelation Road. That's ultimately what gives the album its strength. It's underpinned with sturdy melodies, the occasional bright image and, above all else, Lynne's exceptional voice, which cuts across every song with a sharp, slicing motion.
Lynne's voice is so strong, it's carried her over a career of uneven albums. She began that career firmly in country music territory, recording a duet with George Jones that led to Jones' producer, Billy Sherrill, producing her debut album in 1989. Since that time, however, Lynne has proven to be restless, rebellious and, it seems to an outsider, unsure of or frustrated by her musical identity. Fast forward to today, which finds Lynne making albums on her own label, called Everso Records. She's written, produced and played everything on Revelation Road, and the music is expansive enough to include a torchy pop ballad called "Lead Me Love."
The early part of Lynne's career was defined by a real-life tragedy: When she was 17, Lynne's father murdered her mother and killed himself. Thus, she and her younger sister, the singer Allison Moorer, were left orphaned. After a while, Lynne grew understandably tired of answering interviewers' questions about the event, but on the new album, she's written a startlingly direct song about it, composed from the point of view of her father as he loads his gun. It's called "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road."
As she says in the title of another song here, Shelby Lynne has never needed a reason to cry. The achievement of Revelation Road is that this attitude rarely curdles into self-pity or even repetition. Sure, some of the songs here are thin, both in the quality of their metaphors and their arrangements — there are times when you wish she could have used a band behind her, to give the songs some volume in every sense. But for the most part, Revelation Road reminded me once again why I'll continue to listen to everything Lynne puts out. Her voice is an extraordinary instrument, deployed with great shrewdness and delicacy.