If Music City slouches any further towards its own particular Gomorrah, the Country Music Association will have to rename its annual ceremony the Nashville Pop Music Awards.
Case in point: Faith Hill’s fourth album, Breathe. Riding the success of last year’s platinum crossover single, ”This Kiss,” Hill doesn’t just announce she wants to be a pop diva in the company of Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, and Whitney Houston—she screams it.
But the difference between singing country and pop is more than just adopting new material. The country music audience, taken by her looks and small-town charm, has always been willing to overlook Hill’s thin soprano and limited range. But Breathe exposes the fact that she simply doesn’t have the pipes, attitude, or soul its tonsil-swelling songs of love and loss demand. Nor does it always sound emotionally engaged. Even ”Let’s Make Love,” a romantic duet with husband Tim McGraw, seems routine—not surprising, given that it’s a virtual rewrite of their hit ”It’s Your Love.”
The Star, Miss., native does bring a winning exuberance to her performances, which partly explains her sales of 11 million records. However, too many of these songs, like ”I Got My Baby” and ”The Way You Love Me,” amount to little more than instantly forgettable L.A. pop, slathered with over-the-top rock instrumentation and faux R&B posturing.
In her press release, Hill says that Breathe’s material is remarkably close to autobiography. Maybe so. Here, though, it plays like scenes from some fantasy movie, the one in her head, where — like a diva — every costume change is accessorized with a new persona. Take, for example, the campy blues of ”Bringing Out the Elvis,” on which she’s Ann-Margret, doing a striptease outtake from Viva Las Vegas. If the true Faith is hiding in Breathe somewhere, it might be on her straight-ahead, nothing-to-prove cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ”If I Should Fall Behind.”
Falling behind is the last thing numbers-conscious Nashville wants these days. But country’s current shapers are too cynically going after the lucrative pop market. If Hill expects any real longevity, she’d do well to pare down the flash and histrionics. Certainly her core audience is willing to forgive a country girl’s misguided, big-city flirtation. B- — Alanna Nash