Published September 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

When did it become a crime to 'fess up to heartbreak in country music? As far as its women singers are concerned, contemporary country music seems hell-bent on replacing the plainspoken emotional devastation that has been its glory with empowerment anthems no self-help guru could object to. Apparently, it's become self-destructive or enabling or some other damn thing to sing about how love makes you feel helpless, or about the bitterness and recrimination that come when it goes bad.

It's de rigueur for women in country music to declare in song after song that no man, no thwarted love affair, no crumbling marriage can get the better of them. Vulnerability is permissible if it ends with the singer realizing that, gee, she turned out to be stronger than she thought she was. The sound of country music right now -- the arrangements sweetened with strings, the preponderance of mid-tempo ballads -- derives from country's early-'60s "countrypolitan" makeover, a fagade of nouveau respectability designed to forever banish images of hicks and hillbillies from the minds of pop music fans. One contemporary performer, Bobbie Cryner, on last year's "Girl of Your Dreams," a tough set of songs about the compromises of married life, used the slickness of current country to turn the empowerment ethos on its head. For the most part, though, we're talking about a genre whose current finest practitioner, Alison Krauss, is considered too country for country radio.

All this may explain why listening to Martina McBride's fourth album, "Evolution" (RCA), is such a schizophrenic experience. Here's a set of empowerment songs delivered by a singer with the chops -- and, more importantly, the passion -- to plumb romantic loss and confusion and resentment. McBride may be capable of more genuine emotion than any female singer working in country pop right now. Just hearing them, I couldn't tell Tricia from Shania from Deana if they up and bit me in the John Deere. Even at her most slicked-up and professional, McBride has the simple ability to never sound less than a real person. The numbers are typical Nashville hit-factory fodder, the band trades in Adult Contemporary Country Licks 101 (Biff Watson's acoustic guitar work, like a loaf of home-baked bread that mistakenly wound up on the shelf at the Qwik Mart, is a notable exception), and still McBride doesn't sound like she's phoning it in. And she's one of the few female singers in any genre of Adult Contemporary Pop who doesn't show off with vocal gymnastics. When McBride wants to express a rising emotion, her voice simply gets bigger and freer. That's what happens on "Broken Wing," a testament to how an emotionally committed performance can transform a trite central metaphor.

McBride's voice can get you listening to songs you'd otherwise avoid like the plague. It took about five listens for me to realize that "Happy Girl," with its lyrics about giving up the party crowd and letting your soul break free, is a piece of dread Christian Contemporary pop -- I was hooked by the forthright ebullience of McBride's vocals. And "Keeping My Distance" is the good side of female role-model country. There's no nonsense, no suffering in the way McBride tells the guy she's singing to that she's going to stand her ground until he gets his shit together. There's even a sexualized challenge in the hard way she asks, "Will you ever try anything new?"

But that same sensibility is what demands an upbeat ending be grafted onto "Wrong Again." There's an unforced ache to McBride's vocal on this number. She's singing as a woman who's tried to remain optimistic about her crumbling marriage (and there's enough ambiguity in the way she sings, "It's somethin' that each man goes through" that she could be singing about infidelity or impotence) only to end each verse with the realization "wrong again." Of course, what she has to be proven wrong about in the last verse is her certainty that she'll never find anyone who loves her for her. See, this little object lesson of a song says, you're much stronger than you thought you were, and it makes hash of the emotion that's gone before. It may be more adult, more well-adjusted to sing, "Let's learn to give/let's talk things out" as McBride does in "Some Say I'm Running," but it can't hold a candle to "Let's say things we'll regret, smash up the furniture, screw like bunnies and hate ourselves in the morning."

It may be that McBride will never match her 1995 hit "Independence Day." The story of a woman remembering the Fourth of July fire that killed her abusive drunk of a father and the mother that set it to escape him, "Independence Day" was one of those performances that called everything into question. There was irony and bitterness and triumph and unresolvable contradictions in the way McBride opened each chorus with the declaration "Let freedom ring," acknowledging both the cost of freedom and the lip service America pays it. By querying the bedrock patriotism that country music rests on, McBride even called into question the music itself. Like the punks did with rock 'n' roll, she was asking how country served to reinforce the oppressive structure she was decrying. "Independence Day" was a black hole of a song, sucking in everything that surrounded it on the radio. The independence celebrated on "Evolution" is false independence, depending on an enforced restriction of the emotional palette. The album's irony is that you can't detect any falseness in McBride's singing. "You think I'm always makin'/Something out of nothin,'" she sings on "Whatever You Say." And that's the success of "Evolution" -- the aftertaste is the knowledge of how McBride has made somethin' out of somethin.'

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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