Trisha Yearwood
The Song Remembers When
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By John McAlley

The Song Remembers When is Trisha Yearwood's third album in less than three years. It seems like only weeks ago that Hearts in Armor, her supreme sophomore effort, dramatically raised the stakes on a career that had already begun auspiciously in 1991 with a fine debut LP. Yearwood is the tireless master builder of her own future, so it's assumed that she and producer Garth Fundis know what they are doing in adopting such a somber tone for The Song Remembers When.

Love (Sort of) Stinks might have been a more apt title for this album, such are the voices of heartache, spite and uncertainty that permeate it. So total, in fact, is its focus on the tribulations of romantic love that Song resembles a concept record, its nine wedded tracks wrapped around a reverent cover of "Mr. Radio," the paean to music's cathartic power first recorded by Yearwood's hero Linda Ronstadt. This go-round, however, it's not so easy to fall in love. Yearwood's ironically tender readings of Willie Nelson's 1966 hit "One in a Row" and the muscular, bluesy "Better Your Heart Than Mine" are so bitingly cynical, the numbing truths of "Hard Promises to Keep," Matraca Berg's elegiac "Lying to the Moon" and the hit-bound title track so undeniably sad that songs intended to offer reconciliation and uplift—most notably Jude Johnstone's "The Nightingale" and Rodney Crowell's lament "I Don't Fall in Love So Easy"—buckle under their own ambivalence and the album's cumulative weight.

To say a record is downbeat is not to say it is bad. Without exception, the neocountry music on Song is accessible, state-of-the-art and brilliantly played and arranged. But for the 29-year-old singer, The Song Remembers When is not the rich showcase she had on her two previous albums. For all its grit, there is a middle-of-the-road quality about Song that is disconcerting. And its lesser material feels secondhand. There is little of the spontaneity and few of the interpretive leaps that have made Yearwood's vocal gift so arresting. It's as if the emotional imperatives of these songs somehow evaded her. Given the album's overall air of resignation—and the sass, strength and determination that remain Yearwood's most persuasive attributes—maybe that's fortunate for her.