Chafing at limits: Lizzo, Reba McEntire, Billie Eilish

I’m catching up after finals, a conference, and listing.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Wearing see-through panties, ordering Jerome to get his ass home before she takes matters into her own hands, Melissa Jefferson sings the body electric. Her third album shows off her big, broad voice. She’ll syncopate if she must, but the howl, as tactical as a SCUD, will do. This approach can get wearying, notably on the retro stylings of X Ambassadors’ contributions (the title track, “Heaven Help Me”), on which she balks at genre limitations but hasn’t figured out what to do besides protest — loudly. Still, at a brisk thirty-three minutes Cuz I Love You presents itself as a sturdy star vehicle, hard to imagine gaining traction even five years ago.

Reba McEntire – Stronger Than the Truth

On her thirty-third studio album the polymath merges with a band comprised in part by studio hand Buddy Cannon. If I walked into a bar and heard “Swing All Night Long with You” live, I’d ask about the voice leading the pianist and steel guitarist through the changes. Raspy but supple, worn but not to the nubbin, that voice provides as much empathy as it’s possible at sixty-four and thirty-three albums later, on material by Ronnie Dunn, sure, but also Brandy Clark and daughter Autumn. Like a solidly blue state senator gearing up for a last hurrah, McEntire takes nothing for granted; well-observed gestures of empathy like “Cactus in a Coffee Can,” in which she listens to a woman’s story of abandonment by her crack-addicted mama, don’t hide her privilege. She does sing a lot about cigarettes, though — I can’t believe she so much as sneaks outside the house for one.

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

The production is the star: as intimate as a demo, at ease with vertiginous tempo changes.Billie Eilish wouldn’t have it any other way. Arrangements requiring her to step out of the shadows would dull the acuity of her remarks. She doesn’t write songs — she collects aphorisms for the Instagram era. To imagine this album she co-created with her brother might mummify into a period piece isn’t out of the question, but Eilish circuit-damaged maximal minimalism unifies freaks and geeks from Bowie to Lorde, and not even Bowie saw an album hit #1 in America, let alone twice.

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