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RaeLynn brings her debut album into the world in one of the most fraught times for female country artists. It’s a period when all the critical attention gets lavished upon throwback stylists like Maren Morris and Margo Price, while commercial success remains for those artists who shove their Southern roots as far in the background as they can (and, in the case of The Band Perry, decide to dress like Mad Max: Fury Road extras). The true superstars like Miranda Lambert, Shania Twain and Faith Hill manage to keep a foot in both camps, landing both chart hits and great reviews.
This former Voice contestant isn’t quite to that level yet. RaeLynn is clearly trying to work out just what direction she wants to take her career, a fine thing to figure out at the age of 22. But in her case, she’s trying to make those decisions in a very public fashion: through the release of her first album. As great as it often can be, WildHorse twitches with that indecision as she and her collaborators dabble in a bunch of variations on country music to see which one sticks (or sells the best).
RaeLynn’s most successful foray has been the deeply affecting ballad “Love Triangle,” which smartly places the child of divorce at one end of that titular relationship. It’s a perfect country song, elevated by stinging details (“Bowling alley burger, fries and a milkshake/headed to the same two ol’ dollar matinee”) and the gentle tug of a pedal steel at just the right emotional moment. She also finds that fist-pumping sweet spot where anthemic rock meets honky tonk stomp in the elegy for her broken heart “Graveyard” and the defiant kiss off to a mercurial lover that is “Lonely Call.”
Her rootsy intentions often get crowded up against modern trappings, like the insistent programmed rhythms that anchor nearly every song here or the Carly Rae Jepsen-like patter and dynamics that she resorts to on opening track “Your Heart.” RaeLynn plays the Nashville game as well as anybody but there’s ample evidence that she doesn’t need to tamp down the twang in her voice and slip into something revealing.
One of RaeLynn’s strongest talents revealed on WildHorse is an instinctual love of language. She plays with it in the manner of Loretta Lynn, delighting in rhyme schemes (“if you want candy on your arm/if you want a pretty lucky charm”) and meter (the way she stresses “mamas and daddies” in “Love Triangle,” or the rhythm she slips into on the chorus of “Graveyard’). And the album is rife with sharp specifics or perfect turns of phrase that she craftily tosses out.
It’s really going to take album #2 for us to see what RaeLynn or the people working behind the scenes have in mind for her career. WildHorse is a setting of the table, and a reintroduction of a very talented young lady into the cultural universe. But it also doubles as an assurance that whether she shifts into reverse with more traditionalist intentions or jams down the gas pedal with sights set on futuristic sounds, she’s going to be just fine.