When the Grammy Awards tapped Shelby Lynne for "Best New Artist" in 2000, they nailed a metaphorical truth. The Alabama native had been making records for over a decade, but with I Am Shelby Lynne she overturned a conventional country career like a messiah toppling temples of sin.
Spectral rock 'n' roll glory met holy southern soul, and Lynne sang like she held the key to the cosmos. Rarely have the spiritual aims of high art been so gorgeously fused with the guiltless pleasures of popular culture.
And then Lynne threw it all away. From the teen-porn tease of its album art, to the alt-rock guitar bombast, to the flimsy lyrical formula, her follow-up album, Love, Shelby, was as clunky, overbearing and inefficient as a lot full of Hummers. Aiming for mainstream largesse, Lynne landed an incoherent collection that made Clear Channel programming sound avant-garde. Any listener could find more exhilarating pop music in five seconds of I Am Shelby Lynne.
Sometimes spare and figural as a sketchbook, sometimes glistening with strings and spiraling harmonies, her newest record, the self-produced Identity Crisis is her third release in as many years and a truly personal and potent successor to her nouveaux country-soul vision. Not since John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band (Lynne frequently performs Lennon's "Mother") has psychotherapy sounded so haunting, so essential: "Bold with crazy have no fear/Children cry and then I hear/The message my lies tell me in my dreams." Few on the country, pop or rock scenes have ever written songs as frightening and fetching as Lynne has. And no other singer today would dare sing them from the depths of the fever dream that, thankfully, she refuses to extinguish.