Long lost in the torrent of tabloids, lost in the fickle four-lady shuffle of country radio, is the truth that LeAnn Rimes – whatever her circumstances – is an exceptional country artist. An artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year, as her natural talent imbibes the wisdom and weather of age. The chipper tween who Patsy-parroted through “Blue” was charming, but nowhere near as compelling as the guarded optimist of “What I Cannot Change.” And even she, in turn, sounds a little simplistic compared to the woman we now encounter in “What Have I Done.”
That title should tip off the song’s subject matter to anyone familiar with Rimes’s personal history. But that’s where the easy answers in this release end. Far from a one-note PR push, “What Have I Done” explores every gray shade of Rimes leaving “the only man that’s ever loved me,” painting a strikingly three-dimensional picture of the event and its aftermath.
It could be unwieldy. But the song manages to unfold all this reality gently, each line like a carefully measured breath in a meditation. There’s hardly a wasted word in “What Have I Done,” hardly a note of ornament. Even when Rimes curls the word “loved” at the end of the chorus, it doesn’t feel like a stunt. It feels like what the folk tradition demanded – what the song’s craft demanded. It’s as if in confronting her worst demons yet, Rimes has tapped into the life-spring of classic country: clean, composed catharsis.
Does it all still seem…a bit calculated? Of course; how could any release under such circumstances not? It also seems achingly sincere – and maybe the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If there’s anything “What Have I Done” has to teach, it’s that the truth is complicated. We don’t get to go through life having pleased everyone, or even having convinced everyone of our good intent, or even having convinced ourselves, at times. We just get to try, tugged at each moment by the thoughts and circumstances of the day, and watch what happens. The final judgment on Rimes’s attempts remains to be seen. But as for the judgment on her art – there’s no question.
Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & David Baerwald