Her self-titled debut may have spawned four top-ten singles, but it was on Hearts in Armor that Trisha Yearwood properly announced herself as one of the finest country artists of her generation. Informed by the end of her first marriage, the album explores both the subtle and the dramatic ways that a relationship can dissolve, and it allows Yearwood to lay bare hard-earned truths that lesser vocalists might have left hidden. Though none of the songs are explicitly autobiographical, the first-person authenticity in Yearwood’s readings gives them depth: Her torrid performance on Beth Neilsen Chapman’s “Down on My Knees” is driven by equal parts fear and anguish, while her delivery of “Walkaway Joe” still astonishes for her empathy for the song’s young, headstrong protagonist. That’s what makes Yearwood one of popular music’s finest interpretive singers: Her ability to bring something vital — something that really and truly bleeds — to any song she performs.
What elevated Hearts in Armor over its promising but somewhat listless predecessor, then, was Yearwood’s focus on song selection.
What elevated Hearts in Armor over its promising but somewhat listless predecessor, then, was Yearwood’s focus on song selection. The two artists Yearwood has most often cited as key influences are Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and the songs on Hearts in Armor reflect the ear for quality material and fearless approach to the country genre both exhibit. While Ronstadt’s influence is perhaps most evident in the range of Yearwood’s vocal performances — the full-throated, bluesy wail of “You Say You Will” to the understated prayer of the title track — Harris is given her due on the album’s centerpiece. “Woman Walk the Line” is among the most sharply-observed songs Harris has ever written, a shining example of country’s structural conventions that uses a feminist POV to subvert the genre’s historically conservative gender politics. Producer Garth Fundis deceptively casts this tour-de-force of self-actualization as a honky-tonk weeper, while Yearwood simultaneously acknowledges her own motives and rebuffs a would-be suitor. “Yes, I’m as good as what you’re thinkin’,” she sneers, “But I don’t want to hold your hand.” And not that Yearwood needs the help, but Harris herself provides a typically exquisite backing vocal that makes the song feel like something of a passing-of-the-torch. Elsewhere on the album, Yearwood is backed by Don Henley and Raul Malo and, again, proves that she is fully capable of standing on her own without being defined by her collaborators. Whether breaking away from a lifetime of regrets and missed opportunities on “Wrong Side of Memphis,” imploring a higher power for just enough help so she can regain her footing on “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain,” or delivering a kiss-off to an ex on “Oh, Lonesome You,” Yearwood sings about people seeking to define themselves. She uses Hearts in Armor to do precisely the same for herself.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.