The short version: Thirty-five years ago, Reba McEntire firmly grounded her artistic identity on ‘My Kind Of Country.’ Now, in 2019, she does the very same thing again on ‘Stronger Than The Truth.’
- Favorite tracks: “The Clown,” “Cactus In A Coffee Can,” “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” “In His Mind,” “Stronger Than The Truth”
- Least favorite track: “Freedom”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: To repeat what I said at the beginning of my recent George Strait review, country music is a business. Beyond its kinship with authenticity and its roots, country music has its many trends for a reason.
As such, it’s not surprising to hear of ‘comeback’ albums from Brooks & Dunn, George Strait or Reba McEntire in 2019. Sure, they adapted nicely into the 2000s without sacrificing their artistic identity, as did other ’90s-era artists. But around the turn of the decade, the landscape changed. Brooks & Dunn retired, and Strait and McEntire were on the verge of capturing their final big hits (McEntire especially during this time).
And this conversation isn’t limited to just this specific time frame either. Eventually, all artists get cast aside in favor of welcoming new artists, right or wrong. And that aforementioned adaption isn’t always easy either. Sure, country radio in the ’90s didn’t sound like country radio in the 2000s, but the difference isn’t nearly as noticeable as the one between the 2000s and 2010s.
Thankfully, McEntire, along with those artists, has opted to use this newfound freedom to her advantage to craft what she calls her most country album ever. Of course, we saw this before in 1984 when she released My Kind Of Country, a similar endeavor and risk that held more benefits than consequences for her career.
For the past decade, McEntire has balanced authenticity with commercialism quite well, but even a huge hook-driven hit like 2015’s “Going Out Like That” wasn’t enough to help. Instead, she buckled down to release a gospel album in 2017. Now, Stronger Than The Truth is here to do what My Kind Of Country did before – introduce McEntire as a brand new artist still running circles around many of the names you’re likely to find on the country airplay chart.
If there’s any critiques of McEntire’s work over the years, it’s that while the stories and emotion usually came across excellently, there was always a little too much polish to the delivery. But Stronger Than The Truth is indeed a welcome ally for country music – a rich, warm album driven by excellent fiddle melodies, McEntire’s dynamic range and plenty of nuanced storytelling. It’s rare you say this at this point in an artist’s career, but McEntire may have just released one of her best albums to date.
What caught me off guard with Stronger Than The Truth wasn’t how country it was though, but rather how dark and depressing it was. Of course, that’s also an integral part of country music, but several tracks still take you by surprise. “Cactus In A Coffee Can” is a song that’s been covered numerous times at this point, but McEntire’s bluegrass-inspired spin on it with the leading dobro and fiddle combination certainly helps enrich the somber lyrical content. The leading piano melody of “The Clown” is also among the most beautiful moments of the year, as is the warm fiddle melody of “The Bar’s Getting Lower.” Even if I wouldn’t call it one of the stronger tracks either, the Spanish touches on “Your Heart” really added a darker, almost visceral tone to the writing where McEntire’s warning certainly comes through fine.
Of course, part of the richness also extends toward McEntire herself. Her voice is often placed right at the front of the mix, allowing her dynamic range to really take hold. One asset of McEntire’s deliveries through the years has been her sincerity, especially when handling more complex emotions. Sure, the title track is focused on the aftermath of a relationship, but the listener finds McEntire dealing with the actual reveal of her husband’s infidelity in the moment, equally shocked as she is hurt. “You Never Gave Up On Me” finds her thanking her mother for believing in her, a common sentiment that not only is specific to McEntire through the writing itself, but through her aching delivery knowing her own mother wanted to become a country music artist.
Even when McEntire takes the focus away from her though, she’s still an excellent storyteller. You truly feel like she’s having a real conversation on “Cactus In A Coffee Can,” and she truly hopes others take her advice on “Your Heart.” She especially makes you feel bad for the poor character on “In His Mind.”
But in terms of the content, again, the real selling point of Stronger Than The Truth is here. To repeat another line from my Strait review, you often have to wonder if this album addresses her current relationship with the country music industry. The title track finds her shocked to learn her husband left her for a younger woman from an overheard conversation in the grocery line. I’m just saying, the subtext is fairly obvious. The criticisms of expectations we place on women in society certainly doesn’t go unnoticed either on “The Bar’s Getting Lower.”
But if Stronger Than The Truth revolves around anything, it’s about finding those coping mechanisms wherever they lie. Ironically, it’s the other characters on this album that find those rather than McEntire herself. The woman on “Storm In A Shot Glass” finds temporary solace in giving into her anger, meanwhile the woman in “Cactus In A Coffee Can” finds the strength to forgive her mother for abandoning her when she was born. Sure, one way is noticeably better (and healthier) than the other way, but this album also revolves around the progression to get to that final point where we can move on.
The framing is also important to note on this album too. Sure, from our perspective, the woman in “Storm In A Shot Glass” might as well be crazy and out for blood, but when you examine it from the other side on “The Clown,” the tone changes drastically. The narrator may not really be alone, but anyone at their worst would certainly feel that way.
And again, this album isn’t afraid to shy away from other controversial topics either. “The Bar’s Getting Lower” finds an older woman facing ageism and the wrong side of societal expectations. “In His Mind” isn’t afraid to take a look inside the mind of a man riddled by an obviously severe case of paranoia and denial.
If anything, the album does admittedly need its breaks to ease the tension, but I’m not sure either of the western swing numbers are really a good fit. They’re alright songs I suppose, and McEntire certainly handles them well. But it’s almost as if tracks like opener “Swing All Night Long With You,” and “No U In Oklahoma” ‘swing’ too far in the other direction. To go from the album’s best cut in “The Clown” to the latter track then forward to another excellent cut in “The Bar’s Getting Lower” does feel a tad jarring.
And it’s obvious that Big Machine tried to sink their claws in at a few points in this album. The thumping fiddle-driven country-rock of “Storm In A Shot Glass” certainly fits well given the content, but whatever they were trying on the single, “Freedom” is beyond me. It’s certainly the one track coasting more on style than substance, as between the inconsistent tone that can’t decide between uplifting and dark and the paradoxical lyrical content, it just doesn’t work.
But as a whole, Stronger Than The Truth certainly works to become of McEntire’s best projects. The tones are often minor and dark, but the focus is always on finding a way of healing, even if it doesn’t actually happen. McEntire sounds as strong and with as much conviction as ever, and the writing definitely took turns I didn’t expect. Of all the ’90s artists making comebacks this year, McEntire is the one who’s truly raising the bar for high-quality material.