Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Retro Album Review: Reba McEntire - For My Broken Heart

It was on this day twenty years ago that country superstar Reba McEntire, in the midst of all her critical and commercial success as a country artist, found herself in her "darkest hour" as a tragic aviation accident claimed the lives of eight members of her touring band - Chris Austin, Kirk Cappello, Joey Cigainero, Paula Kay Evans, Jim Hammon, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo, and Micheal Thomas.  Reba reacted by pouring all of her grief and heartache into her music.  The result was one of the greatest albums of her career.

Reba's sixteenth studio album For My Broken Heart, dedicated to her deceased road band, was released in October 1991.  In the liner notes, we find Reba's mission statement for the album:

"It seems your current emotional status determines what music you'd like to hear.  That's what happened on the song selection for this album.  If for any reason you can relate to the emotion packed into these songs, I hope it's a form of healing for all our broken hearts."

A huge critical and commercial success, the album became one of the era's best-selling albums by a female artist with sales of over two million. In addition, For My Broken Heart produced some of Reba's best-known classic hits.  As the album begins, a long and somber string section intro sets the tone for what is to follow, leading into the opening title track.  "For My Broken Heart," also the album's chart-topping first single, walks listeners through the healing journey of a brokenhearted narrator who comes to the sobering realization that "The world ain't gonna stop for my broken heart."  The beautifully emotional lyrics, penned by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer, allude to the narrator's ability to overcome her hurt and move on with her life, but they do so in a way that does not lessen the song's emotional impact by downplaying the depth of her heartbreak.

Also featured on the album is Reba's smash hit "Is There Life Out There," in which a wife and mother begins to wonder if she is missing out on anything in life.  This was a song that connected with many women on a deep level, as did the accompanying music video, which portrayed the song's character pursuing and earning a college diploma  Though the dialogue-heavy video was criticized by CMT for supposedly putting "message ahead of music," its spot-on rendering of the song's theme won it an ACM Award for Video of the Year.  The video was adapted into the 1994 CBS television movie Is There Life Out There?, in which Reba portrayed the lead character. 

Impossible to forget is Reba's epic performance of the Vicki Lawrence pop hit "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia," in which Reba effortlessly eases into her character as she delivers the chilling tale of murder against the swampy, bluesy production.  The single finished it's chart run at an unremarkable peak of #12, but the song nonetheless lives on as one of Reba's career-defining hits.  After "Georgia" saw the end of its radio run, Reba made a swift return to the Top Ten with the beautifully-performed ballad "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" - a story of an emotionally-distant father who dies without his daughter ever hearing him say "I love you."

Each track on the album approaches the theme of heartache from its own unique angle, making For My Broken Heart an album that is thematically consistent from beginning to end.  "He's In Dallas" relates a woman's regret-filled story of the dissolution of her once-happy marriage.  In "Buying Her Roses," a wronged woman attempts to make sense of her tangled emotions, and tries to determine what she should do in response to her husband's flagrant philandering.  In the album's penultimate track, a woman expresses her regret over letting love slip through her fingers in "I Wouldn't Go That Far."

Another remarkable characteristic of this album is that it addresses topics that are out of the ordinary realm of country music lyrics, but that carry no less emotional weight.  The fiddle-laced ballad "Bobby" is a sad but heartwarming story-song of a man's unwavering devotion to a woman, unhampered by fear of people misunderstanding him for the way he demonstrates it, and ultimately leading him to end her life.  "All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)" is a tearjerking tale of an aged woman who resides in a care facility, and who keeps in constant expectation of a visitor who all others know will never come.

The album closes with one of the most personal songs of Reba's career.  The sparsely-produced "If I Had Only Known" puts into song a woman's feelings as she contemplates the death of a loved one, tortured by the thought that she may have taken her loved one for granted.  Of all the songs on the album, "If I Had Only Known" is the one that is the most closely connected to Reba's grief over her devastating personal losses.  The song was never released as a single, but it did chart at #73 from unsolicited airplay.  Due to her deep emotional connection to the song, Reba has said that she could only bear to record the song in a single take, and has performed the song live only on very rare occasions.

In summary, this is undoubtedly very special album.  Every track is a great song in its own right, with each lyric evoking a unique emotional response in the listener.  Being the twenty year anniversary of the disaster that inspired the album, this is a fitting time to revisit this remarkable work of art.  This record is not the result of an artist pandering to the tastes of country radio, or struggling to fit in with current trends.  This record is the work of an artist bringing out her deepest emotions, and channeling them into achingly sincere performances.  The greatest albums in country music come from such deep places, and For My Broken Heart is doubtlessly one such album.

(...which, unfortunately, is as high as the scale goes)