It’s not surprising that Clint Black’s third album, The Hard Way, makes a stylistic tip of the hat to ’70s singer-songwriters Jimmy Buffett, Dan Fogelberg, and James Taylor. After all, hasn’t Black sat back and watched onetime close rival Garth Brooks shoot to crossover superstardom by mixing his own traditional country sound with those same pop elements?

What’s far more unexpected on this long-awaited follow-up to Put Yourself in My Shoes (1990) is the album’s somber, reflective mood. If Killin’ Time, Black’s startling 1989 debut, took an upbeat, though fatalistic, look at blue-collar love, and Put Yourself captured the tension of a young man scrambling to find himself, The Hard Way is about delusion, lost innocence, and hard-won wisdom. Only a smattering of the songs on the new album reflect a halfway hopeful attitude. The bulk find the successful country hit maker longing to return to the past, when things were less complicated, or struggling to keep his balance on shaky ground.

Just why Black, whose first two albums have sold 5 million copies, should appear so glum might be traced to his much publicized falling-out with manager Bill Ham. In March, Black and Ham sued each other, both for breach of contract. Black wants out of his contract; Ham wants it enforced.

”You think you’ve got something to cry about,” Black snarls on ”Something to Cry About,” a song ostensibly about romantic disappointment but more likely a thinly veiled attack on Ham. ”I’ll give you something to cry about/Cause all I’ve got is a hole where my heart used to be.” Like ”Burn One Down,” which also seems directed toward Ham, ”Something to Cry About” seethes with a bitterness and anger unprecedented in Black’s earlier work. Otherwise, Black isn’t talking much about his troubles with Ham, insisting he rarely writes from experience, and saying he has been exceedingly happy since his marriage to actress Lisa Hartman last year.

Yet for all the emotion he expresses, Black’s writing on The Hard Way is often strangely flat and clichéd. At times, exactly what he’s trying to say comes across in disjointed fragments, like the outline of a connect-the-dots diagram. There are no immediately grabby and tuneful songs that burrow in the memory, and apart from the insightful and extremely well-written treatise on the mystery and power between the sexes, ”A Woman Has Her Way,” no classic ballads. Black, who cowrote all the songs on the album, admits that RCA asked him to beef up the program with tunes from additional writers, but he refused.

Still, the record succeeds as Black’s premier experiment in musical cross-pollination. While infusing his vocals with the twangy catches, leaps, and growls that typify hard-core country, Black skillfully and subtly insinuates enough traces of pop melody, aggressive rhythms, and soaring, soulful instrumental solos — especially from Mark O’Connor’s fiddle, which hisses like an injured cat — to carry his work to a broader audience. Whether these listeners can handle Black’s downer of a catharsis, however, arriving like a doubled-up fist to the jaw, will probably depend on their view of romance in the confrontational ’90s.

The Hard Way
  • Movie
  • 111 minutes