Martina McBride’s recently-released new album is her first for her new label Republic Nashville, having recorded on RCA for the previous eighteen years. The record is titled Eleven due to its status as the eleventh studio album of her career, being released on the eleventh month of the year 2011, and containing eleven tracks (though the deluxe Target version comes with four bonus tracks). Or, presumably, because she was too drunk to think of a real title.
With McBride’s recent record label switch, one would easily wonder if any change in her musical strategy would follow. Of the two singles that preceded the release, each gave a drastically different impression of what kind of album fans could be led to expect. “Teenage Daughters” suggested a release that was fresh, unique, and slightly off-beat, while “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” seemed to foreshadow a business-as-usual stack of overblown power ballads indulging McBride’s most irritating tendencies of recent years.
That said, it comes as a pleasant surprise that Eleven as a whole is quite a bit closer to the former. The album, produced by McBride and Byron Gallimore, and featuring six tracks on which McBride shares writing credits, includes a good dose of catchy up-tempo fare that taps into a variety of different genre influences, though there are some exquisite ballads as well.
In the liner notes, McBride makes no bones about the fact that album kickoff “One Night” was written to serve as an opener for her shows – a fact which is quite apparent in listening to the song, which is meant to describe “how I feel when I walk onstage.” The lyrics don’t seem to be worth much at face value, but McBride injects an energy into the song that makes it oddly infectious, if not particularly substantial. Happy love song “Always Be This Way” delves no deeper lyrically, but is notable for it’s left-of-center styling. “Always Be This Way” finds McBride tapping into something of a reggae-country vein with the breezy ukelele-laced tune. Though the song could use a better title hook, McBride turns in an expressive and engaging vocal performance that fits the melodic groove perfectly, and she puts just the right amount of gusto into lyrics like “I like the way you make my heart go boom-boom-boom.” The styling may prove polarizing with some listers – Whether or not you like it may depend to some extent on whether or not you liked “Stuck Like Glue” – but it sure is darn catchy.
Perhaps the one track on this album that I was fully expecting to hate was McBride’s cover of Train’s hit “Marry Me,” a song I never particularly cared for, featuring guest vocals from Train frontman Pat Monohan. How surprised I was when I found myself captivated by McBride’s beautifully understative delivery! McBride sings the first verse and chorus solo, and is followed by Monohan singing the second verse and chorus. On the bridge, the two vocalists begin singing directly to each other, eventually blending their voices in harmony on the final chorus. This particular setup, as explained by McBride in the album’s liner notes, is symbolic of two potential lovers who “tell their stories seperately and then come together at the end.” It adds an entirely new layer that was completely absent from the Train original (which was sung solo by Monohan), lifting the song from a pleasant diversion to an album highlight.
The album may seem a bit heavy on lightweight fare, but McBride balances it out with ballads such as “When You Love a Sinner,” a dark story of alcohol abuse that recalls her haunting 1992 single “Cheap Whiskey.” Written by Kacey Musgraves, Jay Clementi, and Chip Boyd, the song smartly avoids coming across as a superficial “issue song.” Instead of addresses the addicted individual in a condescending manner, the lyric gives voice to the alcoholic’s spouse, portraying the deep emotional weight she bears. It’s a song ripe with memorable lines like “You can’t tread water with a drownin’ man,” which give the song a strong emotional punch. Without a doubt, “Sinner” easily ranks as Eleven‘s best-written song.
It comes as a relief that, in most cases, McBride resists the urge to go for the glory notes on the ballads, instead favoring much more restrained and effective vocal interpretations. The young love nostalgia tune “Summer of Love” is a rather middling lyric that wouldn’t pop much if not elevated by McBride’s nuanced delivery – which, thankfully, never reaches the overblown crescendo that one might expect. With the beautiful album closer “Long Distance Lullaby,” McBride takes simple lyrics such as “I miss your love… I miss your smile,” and delivers them with achling believability. Indeed, the album includes performances that rank among McBride’s finest displays of interpretive ability to date. The production on the mid-tempo tracks is also surprisingly light and tasteful, featuring some prominent appearances of the steel guitar – country music’s signature instrument – performed by Dan Dugmore, no less.
In regard to production and vocal restraint, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” stands out a bit of an anomaly. The swelling orchestral arrangement and belted-out choruses largely mask the fact that it’s actually a more decent lyric than we generally get in cancer songs - though a disease that claims so many lives is definitely a topic worth writing about. The songwriters – Ben Hayslip, Jimmy Yeary, and Sonya Isaacs – at least deserve credit for constructing an actual story around the cancer scenario, which treats the victim as more than just a faceless achetype, and comes across as more than just shameless emotional cloying. In the sum of its parts, though, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” is still the weakest track on the album.
With other tracks, McBride experiments with catchy horn-infused march-friendly tunes (“Broken Umbrella” and “You Can Get Your Lovin’ Right Here”) that bear a mild similarity to Billy Currington’s recent hit “Love Done Gone.” And of course, leadoff single “Teenage Daughters” deserves honorable mention as one of McBride’s best singles in years. Written by McBride with Brad and Brett Warren, the clever tune undeservedly stalled at #17 on the charts, but its radio run was one of those precious few moments in which the mature perspective of a full-grown adult woman was represented on country radio. (Take a page out of Martina’s book, please, Reba)
Eleven is not a perfect record, but it finds McBride sounding reinvigorated and eager to try new things, breaking the pattern of monotony she has often slipped into. Some listeners will love her latest direction, while others might not be won over, but one thing is sure: Martina McBride’s Eleven is definitely one of the most unexpectedly interesting releases of 2011.