Two strangers fall in love on an airplane. Two lovers jump in a car, put their map away and drive “anywhere.” A woman finds that life’s hardships make her stronger. And a mainstream country singer delivers a derivative, formulaic album. Just another day inside the Nashville music making machine.
It takes literally less than one minute for Sara Evans’ sixth studio album to reveal itself as a cliché monster, with the “Born to Fly” and “Suds in the Bucket” singer launching into a soaring chorus that declares, “All I want is to be loved desperately, like the sun loves the moon/Like the moon adores the shore.” A few seconds later, Evans—who co-wrote the song with Nashville songsmith and frequent collaborator Marcus Hummon—swaps her amateur poet hat for that of dimestore philosopher: “Babe, I believe that every day is a crossroad,” she sings. “We can take the right fork, or take the left, just as long as we move ahead.”
The album’s second track, “A Little Bit Stronger,” provides a glimmer of hope that perhaps the record won’t be the train wreck hinted at by its predecessor. Despite its heavy-handed optimism, the Luke Laird, Hillary Lindsey and Hillary Scott composition is a fully formed power ballad with a tight and modestly effective storyline that manages to escape the triteness of its theme and wind up as an earnestly empowering anthem.
But the reprieve is short lived, as “A Little Bit Stronger” is immediately followed by a droning cover of Rod Stewart’s synth-laden 1988 hit “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” where the synth is replaced with some generic steel guitar fills. That ill-advised cut is followed by a song called “Anywhere,” which is Jo Dee Messina’s “Head’s Carolina, Tails California” without the urgency or impetus.
And it’s just downhill from there. In “Alone” (a ballad that opens to a quiet acoustic guitar and the always-foreboding lyrics “Thank you for the roses you sent me/They’re beautiful”), Evans’ character is leaving her forgiveness-seeking boyfriend a voice mail that says, “Please don’t call every time you think of me” and “Sometimes loving me means leaving me alone.” Ouch.
Following an awful Kara DioGuardi song called “Wildflower,” Stronger comes to a close with a not-very-bluegrass “Bluegrass Version” version of “Born To Fly” (effectively making this a nine-song album with a cheap-sounding bonus track).
Stronger is a collection of astonishingly bad songs, but there’s nothing especially noteworthy about that fact in today’s mainstream country music. In fact, most current mainstream country albums are full of astonishingly bad songs. But every now and then, mixed in with all of the trash, it’s possible to find a real gem.
And what’s ultimately the most devastating thing about this album is that, while it contains such a gem, Evans’ amazingly disconnected performance renders it useless.
Co-written by the very talented Nathan Chapman (producer for Taylor Swift and Laura Bell Bundy), “What That Drink Cost Me” is sung by a character who lost her alcoholic husband in a car accident. “I lost a good man to a bad habit/He didn’t love the whiskey, he just had to have it,” she sings. Lyrics like that are the stuff classics are made of.
But Evans’ performance is passionless, clueless and robotic, perhaps the epitome of a singer disconnected from her subject. She hardly sounds like she’s paying attention when she tells the story of waiting for him to come home, and falling to the floor as the police inform her that her lover is dead.
She should be reeling with pain and she cries, “I lost a good man.” But she just sounds sleepy.
If you wanted to give Evans the benefit of the doubt, you could say that her disinterested interpretation attempts to play up the idea she’d already lost him. There’s a line, after all, in the second verse where she sings, “So many nights I’d scream and shout/Even try to hide his keys/I tried everything to keep him from going down that road/Then my heart just let him go.”
But if that’s the case—and I think that’s a very big “if”—it represents a woefully poor interpretation of this character’s emotional turmoil. If you love someone, losing them like that would crush you—even if some part of you expected that you might someday lose them. But not so much of a trace of that pain is communicated through Evans’ delivery.
“What That Drink Cost Me” should be a song that transcends the rest of Stronger‘s disposable fare—every bit of which will be forgotten in no time flat.
Instead, it’s an epic fail from one of country music’s most underachieving singers.