A stunning solo debut.
H.C. McEntire has been drifting toward her new album Lionheart for some time. From the punk of Bellafea to the country-rock of Mount Moriah, she has moved ever closer to the rural South of her roots. Here she hits full country music mode, even while ignoring or reworking many of the genre’s tropes. McEntire has brought in a stable of guest stars including friends and mentors, but no matter how talented her colleague, she remains at the fore for a stunning solo debut.
The album begins memorably, just a piano chord and McEntire’s gentle twang speaking to an indeterminate “you,” possibly a lover or God or even the land to which she returns. “A Lamb, A Dove,” its once unwelcome spirituality now foregrounded, offers a grace-laden introduction, a welcoming hymn that explains, “I have found heaven/ In a woman’s touch.” McEntire doesn’t shy from her sexuality, nor does she shy from a faith that struggles with that longing.
McEntire could have turned the album into a personal revelation, which would have made it a valuable piece of art entering the public conversation at the right time. But she does more than that, drawing the big issues of religion, love (romantic, familial and friendly), and rural culture into a concrete vision. In “Yellow Roses” she aptly recognizes herself as a “revenant chanteuse,” though there’s more of a visionary edge here than that phrase implies.
Much of the album reveals an artist settling into a place and being that suits her. “When You Come for Me” offers a hint of the past – “The land I cut my teeth on/ Wouldn’t let me call it home” – even while recognizing that home is home until her burial day. Fellow North Carolinian Tift Merritt joins her on vocals, creating lovely harmonies that give way to Allyn Love’s pedal steel part that says just as much about feeling okay back home.
The whole album makes that sonic statement, musicians committing to its songs, offering little flash while crafting a perfect atmosphere. “Quartz in the Valley” should be a Nashville radio staple, though that’s sadly unlikely given its release on Merge and McEntire’s indie bona fides. Oddly, Kathleen Hanna helped convince McEntire to bring the song to fullness. Something bottled up comes out and when McEntire asks, “Can you feel it in your bones?” it’s hard not to answer yes.
The album closes with McEntire’s biggest vocal performance, sung over the spare music of “Dress in the Dark.” As the percussion throbs like a pulse, McEntire seems amazed that “I can only feel your heart/ Through your dress in the dark.” It’s a fitting end to an album full of surprises and emotions, and intimate moments in a broad country. McEntire has captured a moment perfectly, and it’s so rich that you can almost smell the sweetgum as you turn out the lights.