As the genre’s leading female vocalist for the past few years, it’s hard not to have high expectations for a Martina McBride record. Her consistent success at radio and retail allows her to command top-drawer material, and this is her first collection of new songs since 2003. It’s not a good sign when I’m listening to an album from an artist of McBride’s stature and I’m wondering, “Why is she recording this?”
There are some undeniably strong songs and performances here, but they’re scattered among boring, interchangeable pap that tries to be empowering for women but ends up coming across as an audio Hallmark card. Heartbroken? It’s okay, “Everybody Does” go through heartache, but just “Cry Cry (‘Till The Sun Shines)” and it will get better. “For These Times” is a “message song” so vaguely written that both a hardcore conservative and hardcore liberal could be forgiven for thinking it shares their world view. “Beautiful Again” is a disturbingly jaunty sing-a-long about the sexual abuse of a child. And maybe I’m just a little slow, but I don’t get what’s going on in “If I Had Your Name” at all.
But give McBride a simple, traditional country song like “Tryin’ to Find a Reason” and she knocks it out of the park, and speaks truth about the human experience in the way the best country music can, but most adult contemporary cannot. Speaking of adult contemporary, the lead single “Anyway” is an absolutely gorgeous rewriting of Mother Teresa’s “Anyway” poem, which was based on the Paradoxical Commandments. If she had cut back on the strings and let the song end softly, rather than come back for the big finish, it would’ve been a masterpiece, but even as is, it’s an essential performance.
McBride finishes off the record with two songs that are among the best she’s ever recorded. “House of a Thousand Dreams” captures the inner monologues of a husband and wife who both think they’re not doing enough for their family, even though they’re working as hard as they can, and then ends with the idyllic voice inside their young son’s head, who knows he’s loved and thinks they’re the best parents in the world. It sounds sappy as described, but it’s actually quite poignant, and every word rings true.
Even better is the stunning album closer, “Love Land”, which finds an unwed mother pressured into marrying against her wishes, and having the baby die, yet the support her husband gives her in the process helps her discover the love that she’s always wanted in him. Again, every word rings true, as the characters are completely human and multi-dimensional.
McBride hasn’t made a truly great album since Wild Angels, but when at her best, she makes some of the best mainstream country music. The good news is that the vocal histrionics are kept to a minimum, and the strongest material here shows her song sense can be very much on the mark.