This ran a while back on Splice Today.
I’ve been obsessed with death metal recently — Decapitated, Disincarnate, Dismember, Deicide, Demilich, and of course Death — best fucking band names in the world of music, and that’s just the ones that start with “D”. I love that listening to death metal on an ipod is like collecting every word in the dictionary that could possibly be considered morbid and gross and putting them together almost at random. And yes, I’m sure there’s a band named “Morbid Gross” out there somewhere, and their singer sounds like he’s gargling knives and the music is like being bashed upside the head with a decaying goat tied to a spinning helicopter rotor because — that’s what death metal is damn it! Just ask Carcass or Cancer or Cannibal Corpse or Kreator.
The other thing I’ve been listening to is the new Shelby Lynne album, Tears, Lies, and Alibis, which obviously has nothing to do with death metal at all. It has so little to do with death metal that it’s kind of fun to sit back and count the ways that it is not like everything else I’m listening to. You can hear the lyrics. They are sensitive songs about love and heartache rather than vile despicable ruminations on nuclear winter, incest, and stripping the flesh from the rotting Christ with your teeth. And, to get a little more meta, it’s always clear as clear can be why a death metal album is death metal, but it’s not at all clear what Shelby Lynne is supposed to be. Folk? Pop? Country?
Country’s where she’s usually filed I think, and that’s actually the best explanation of her genre incoherence. Because, if death metal revels in fiendish formal consistency, country has long been defined more by who’s doing the dancing than by what they’re dancing to. Music by rural whites for rural whites, country has borrowed variously from jazz, rockabilly, rock, pop, soul, blues, and whatever else happened to be around, just so long as it wasn’t too up to the minute. Death metal (or for that matter, bluegrass) is what it is; country is who is playing it and listening to it.
What this means is that fans of country — even more than fans of pop, perhaps — aren’t especially fans of a particular musical style. Listening to country means listening to an amalgamation. As a result, there’s a great deal of emphasis on personality. Death metal performers (and, for that matter, bluegrass performers) are relatively hidden, obscured behind their technical mastery and their unholy obeisance to the tropes of their genre. Country, though (or for that matter punk) is all about charisma — your stories, your voice, your sexiness, your humor. If death metal is anonymous assault, country is personal seduction.
Which maybe helps explain why I’m not so into this Shelby Lynne album. Not that I don’t like country — overall I probably like classic country more than death metal, truth be told. But…well, Lynne just isn’t that charismatic. She’s got all the technical bits down, no doubt — her voice is rich and full, with a touch of plainspokennness that comes across as sensuality. The songwriting is unimpeachable, from the Beatlesesque “Rains Came” with its woodwind accents ,to the swinging soul come-on of “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” to the earnest folkisms of “Family Tree.” It’s all done with professional polish and even moments of inventiveness. If it were death metal, I’d thrash my head to it happily.
But it’s not death metal — and as a result it’s roteness is kind of a problem. Country has no solid formal grounding to fall back on, so mere competence, or even hyper-competence, just isn’t good enough. George Strait or Leanne Womack or Lyle Lovett or K.D. Lang, to cite some artists comparable to Lynne, all manage, at various points, to be funny, or weird, or eccentric or heartfelt. I don’t necessarily adore everything any of those singers have done, but they do put their own stamp on their material. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who could put as much rueful pathos as George Strait does into the couplet “Oh she tells her friends I’m perfect and that I love that cat/But you know me better than that.” It’s hard to think of anyone who could sound as simultaneously ridiculous and heartbroken as Leann Womack does when she declares “I’m the fool in love with the fool who’s still in love with you.”
There’s no comparable moment like that on Shelby Lynne’s album. Yes, she has a great voice, but various people have great voices, and it’s hard to see how this album would be changed if one of them sang it instead of her. When you listen to a country album, you’re kind of always asking, “Who are you? And why should I love you? “ If Shelby Lynn were Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation or Massacra the answers would be, in order, “no one” and “I will feed your corpse to the pit”. But she isn’t, and so the answers instead seem to be “I’m not sure,” and “because I’m a little bland.” Which is why I’m turning off Shelby now and going back to listen to Sodom or Slayer or Sepultura— or, hell, maybe even to Strait.