“I Hope You Dance” will be forever remembered by enemies of mainstream country as the sound of a million crates of Faith Hill albums dropping unexpectedly from the sky to crush a busload of adorable leukemic orphans. For the rest of us, though, Lee Ann Womack’s hit rang out like hope, like dancing, like the last birthday card from your grandma before she died, except with some bland dudes harmonizing on the chorus. And then success enticed Womack to junk her previously quasi-trad career for the stankier sentimental loogie Something Worth Leaving Behind; the title track deserved the abandonment its name suggested, posing the undying question “Hey Mona Lisa, who was Leonardo?/Was he Andy Warhol?/Were you Marilyn Monroe?” A: That bus of cute little cancer motherfuckers is going down.
If the strings of “I Hope You Dance” pirouetted in slow motion like cherubim wrapping newborn puppies in silken gauze, the one (pause) two (pause) three-e-e on the fiddle that announces the title track and opener of There’s More Where That Came From is Nashvillese for “Lemme help you with that zipper.” When Womack sings “I had forgotten just what love felt like” here or warns, “I’m gonna love you tonight,” to complete the titular concern of her new, smartly understated hit “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” she doesn’t mean “love.” She means you know. She means somebody just started liking cheatin’ songs.
But it’s not the cheatin’ she likes, or just the melody. It’s the comforting heft of a familiar trope, the cool feel of scalpel in hand as you dissect a cliché. Before she became one with the Hallmark megaswoon, after all, Womack made her way as a songwriter. Though she has only one partial songwriting credit on the new disc, “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago” offers a good example of the classically balanced commonplace she favors over wordplay, rhyming “I remember when he took my hand and said ‘I do’ ” with “And the kitchen I was standin’ in when he said ‘I’m through.’ ” Each song plot here can be encapsulated in a précis, from the unfortunately unblocked metaphor “Two’s a crowd” (she carries her ex in her head wherever she goes) to the breezily effective “He Ought to Know That by Now” (all that an inattentive husband should’ve understood, right up to why Lee Ann ditched him).
“I Hope You Dance” aside then, Womack’s weakness has always been for tasteful craft. Her latest disc is characteristically fuzzy on the difference between classy and classic, a flaw she characteristically overwhelms with the paradoxes of a vocal style best characterized as openhearted restraint. As familiar vowels wobble from her mouth in the guise of slippery diphthongs that evade all Yankee transliteration, Womack works that expansive emotional range allotted to assertive female country performers, all the way from pluck to spunk. Her voice grows more defiant the girlier she scrunches it, and hurts deeper the more she purtifies matters. When everything comes together, as on “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” it’s not clear whether your buttons are being pushed by form or function—by the way each instrument flows into an intuitively graceful traffic pattern, by the conflation of disgust and delight in Womack’s tone, or maybe just by the way the song hops up a key for the final verse.
Left on its lonesome, unsung, a well-wrought country composition is only slightly more sentimental than a crossword puzzle or a quadratic equation. A rueful lyric could be a Foxworthy-worthy gag or a bitter laugh at the cruel absurdity of the universe, depending on who gets to do the ruing and what the pedal-steel player’s up to. Too many respectful formalists bring a box of Kleenex to the Math Olympics, but after Womack completes her crosswords, it feels like the muck of everyday has been wiped away to reveal unmentioned aspirations and fears. Or at least like two unauthorized fingers sliding between your belt and its buckle.