Shelby Lynne's new album, Suit Yourself, is dotted with bits of studio banter - conversations and instructions caught on mic and spliced here and there, into and between the songs. It's nowhere more noticeable than on "I Cry Everyday." "Let's get the claps in," Lynne commands after the bridge, and sure enough, hands start clapping on the beat. As the song fades out, she orders, "Take out the claps," and sure enough, they fade out and are gone. This curious technique is not just a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Lynne's recording process. It's also a strong reminder that she is producing this album herself, that she is calling the shots, that she is in control. She who giveth the handclaps taketh them away.
This small display of power is revealing: Lynne thrives when she has complete control over her output, from writing to arranging to recording. That was the hallmark of her 2000 album, I Am Shelby Lynne, which would have been called a comeback if more people had heard of her. Lynne had spent over a decade in Nashville, with five solid, if not exactly spectacular, albums to her name. Apparently tired of the Music Row rigmarole, she took the reins of her career and reinvented herself. Produced by Bill Bottrell, I Am Shelby Lynne sounds like someone going for broke: It's full of laid-bare songs that updated Phil Spector's wall-of-sound and Dusty Springfield's soft-focus soul and recalled a time when rock-and-roll, R&B, and country were more or less synonymous - all in service to a woman who introduced herself to a new audience as unafraid and even willing to expose or embarrass herself.
I Am Shelby Lynne was a transformation of such Madonna magnitude that it was considered by many to be a debut album, and Lynne even won a Grammy for Best New Artist. It seemed genuinely odd, then, that for her hastily recorded 2001 follow-up, Love, Shelby, Lynne handed the reins over to professional hit-maker Glen Ballard, who had helped turn Wilson Phillips, Alanis Morissette, and the Corrs into stars. He not only produced Love, Shelby but also received co-writing credit on more than half of the tracks. The result was an album as slick and calculated as its predecessor was insistent and empowering; Ballard's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach made Lynne sound like all the country singers she'd been trying to show up.
Lynne regained her footing with the aptly titled Identity Crisis, which she produced and wrote on her own, but it's Suit Yourself, her fourth album as the new Shelby Lynne and her ninth overall, that finally fulfills the promise of I Am Shelby Lynne. She gets sole writing credit on most of the songs, and her airy production gives her rough country songs a Brill Building polish while creating an airy sound that counterbalances her bravado vocals. Wanting a comfortable, live feel for the album, she corralled a backing band that includes drummer Bryan Owings, former Wallflower guitarist Michael Ward, and bassist/engineer Brian "Brain" Harrison, along with Benmont Tench and pedal steel player Robby Turner, whose guitar illuminates almost every track. But perhaps the most crucial presence here (besides, of course, Lynne herself) is Tony Joe White, who contributes two songs to the album: the chestnut "For Old Times Sake" and the closer, "Rainy Night in Georgia" (which Lynne renames "Track 12," presumably because she can).
Even as Lynne oversees every aspect of the album, her songs make clear that life is uncontrollable and the future unseeable, an admission that makes Suit Yourself hardier and more conflicted than its predecessors. On "You Don't Have a Heart," she takes action and leaves an emotionally stunted lover. Conversely, on the Bush-bashing "You're the Man," she realizes she can't take action against war, sprawl, or general corruption, even though she still presents her Southern liberalism as back-porch common sense.
But death looms larger than romance or politics on Suit Yourself, especially on tracks such as "Where Am I Now" and the lullaby "Sleep." Even so, Lynne stalwartly tempers her fears of mortality with intimations of faith. "Turn the noise up, make it louder," she sings on "I Won't Die Alone," "I can't leave here as a coward/I won't die alone." She sounds alternately resigned and relieved at the thought of death, knowing that the brave-face lyrics are not a statement of fact but a hope that's tentative at best. The song loses none of its impact for being so upbeat.
In an act of awkward sequencing, "I Won't Die Alone" is followed by a trifle of a song (the less-than-a-minute "You and We") before Lynne launches into the album's best track, "Johnny Met June," which was inspired by the death of Johnny Cash. (Lynne must feel particularly close to the couple: She plays June's sister Carrie Carter in the upcoming biopic Walk the Line.) The two songs address two sides of the same enormous issue: If "I Won't Die Alone" is about having people in life to send you off, then "Johnny Met June" is about having loved ones waiting for you when you finally get where you're going. Shelby Lynne may not know where she's going, but she's definitely making her own way.