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In country music, the decade has been dominated by youthfully suave, masculine displays of flirtation — or, to put it another way, by songs and performances that tend to feel like low-stakes stuff. That's a far cry from an outlook that country was known for throughout much of its modern commercial history: a tragic view of the world, well suited to openly anguished singing and accompaniment by weepy steel guitars and fiddles.
The repertoire on which Reba McEntire built her Nashville fame, before all her big-screen, small-screen and Broadway work, had its share of melodramatic ballads whose protagonists grieved the ways their cheating lovers had wrecked their domestic stability. Her singles were fixtures on country radio for an extraordinarily long stretch of time, from the 1980s through the '90s and into the '00s, while several generations of less-durable stars emerged and receded from view. Even when the hits slowed, McEntire still displayed a desire and ability to adapt to a trend toward exuberantly empowered, anthemic female expression, and brought swelling melancholy and impatience to a song made famous by Beyoncé.
Various paths are available to country veterans whose days as the defining faces and leading commercial contenders of the contemporary format are past. They include revisiting their foundational country influences or their mother's favorite church hymns, showcasing their affinity for such enduring forms as bluegrass or pop standards, or embracing the connoisseurship of Americana sensibilities and song sources. All offer ways to reinvent an artist as a serious, rooted performer.
A couple years back, McEntire seemed gleefully aware of the options newly available to her when she put her own glossy spin on a collection of hymns, gospel spirituals and inspirational numbers. Now, on Stronger Than the Truth, she's made the inspired choice to circle back — not to her forebears, but to a crucial approach from her own recording career. The new album's polished warmth, narrative poignancy and modern honky-tonk heartache in some ways hearkens back to the 1984 set My Kind of Country, which helped establish her name and musical identity. The producer McEntire chose this time, Buddy Cannon, sang harmony on that '80s breakthrough, helmed her first album of the '00s and has become a Nashville go-to for easeful, expert angles on traditionalism.
McEntire hails from a generation of country superstars for whom lyrics aren't vehicles for specific autobiographical disclosure so much as broadly accessible sentiments. Still, given that she recently weathered a high-profile divorce from her former manager, plenty of people will listen to these dozen songs — more than half of which unfurl tales of a shattered belief in love — with that subtext in mind. McEntire speaks in the most general terms about using her music as an outlet for her pain, but her album is every bit as much a work of self-possessed re-centering.
She sounds the cheekiest and most lighthearted during a pair of western-swing tracks: "No U in Oklahoma," a kiss-off that name-checks her native state, and "Swing All Night Long With You," which contains nearly two full minutes of frisky fiddle, piano, hollow-body guitar and steel solos.
Mostly, though, McEntire focuses on telling stories of domestic betrayal in grand yet thoroughly grounded fashion. In the title track, her protagonist describes modest desires that were met, only to be dashed after she'd come to count on them. "I never dreamed of wanting more than a small-town, simple life," McEntire sings, sounding subdued over a simple acoustic-guitar figure. "A little money in our pockets, 'You're my husband, I'm your wife' / But then I fell in icy water, standing in the grocery line / I overheard my name and yours and one I did not recognize." She opens the chorus with an exposed, dejected high note, and punctuates her phrases with distinctive curled vowels and melodic trills, making warm, expressive use of a timbre slightly thinned by the passage of time.
During the ballad "Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain," McEntire acknowledges that the suffering brought on by the revelation of a lover's cheating can be mortifyingly all-consuming. "This ain't no little-girl heartache," she insists, her delivery deflated. In the kind of nostalgic gesture that's not at all uncommon in country music, the chorus quotes from some of Wynette's best-known songs, but the immediacy and meaningful embellishment of McEntire's performance — the places where her voice flares or softens — render them a living lexicon of marital devastation. Before it's over, a keening swell of steel guitar leads into a key change and full-throated emoting.
"The Clown," a theatrical ballad in 6/8 time, opens with a dinner scene in which the protagonist learns that her partner is leaving. While she absorbs the world-rocking shock of that news, the world around her appears cruelly indifferent, persisting in its undisturbed normalcy. "I looked to the waiter for some consolation," she complains, with a touch of indignation in her phrasing. "But he just poured the coffee. And without hesitation, he said, 'Ma'am, is that all you'll be needing tonight?'"
"Cactus in a Coffee Can" has a tearjerker of a storyline. Flanked by the measured melancholy of refined, lyrical, contemporary-bluegrass-style accompaniment, McEntire relishes the role of an empathetic airline passenger. She's moved by the plight of the stranger seated next to her, who shares that she's toting the ashes of her birth mother, who couldn't raise her but with whom she'd reunited on her death bed.
But Stronger Than the Truth holds a sadder vignette still: a sleek, mid-tempo, hard country number titled "The Bar's Getting Lower." It's a barroom closing-time portrait of an aging woman who's haunted by the unattainable marriage-and-motherhood life script impressed upon her by her mother, and who surveys her diminished and disappointing options with crumbling confidence. The bridge is just 20 seconds long, but McEntire makes it a melodrama in miniature. "She could thank him for the drink and walk away / Live to love another day," she sings with fleeting conviction. Then her voice flares as she begins to fret: "But she's getting older / And the night's getting colder." For the final line, her delivery sinks and settles. "The bar's getting lower," she observes somberly, transforming "lower" into a distressing, six-syllable word. In a promotional video, McEntire said she'd admired the song for a while. "I hadn't [recorded] it before," she explained, "because I knew it was gonna hurt." But she's up to the task of going there, with seasoned perspective and without reservation.