Melissa Etheridge

Breakdown

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Shortly after becoming a household name, Melissa Etheridge released Your Little Secret in 1995, an album that performed well but didn't quite receive the acclaim or sales of her 1993 breakthrough, Yes I Am. Following its release, she took some time off and became a parent. During her self-imposed hiatus, pop music underwent a quiet revolution, as female artists accounted for the majority of record sales and radio play. There were rootsy singer/songwriters in the same vein as Etheridge, but by and large they were overshadowed by the bouncy pop of the Spice Girls and their ilk, Alanis Morissette and her offspring, and Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith Fair crowd. If this affected Etheridge at all, it's not apparent from her comeback, Breakdown. There are a couple of concessions to the late '90s, primarily in the presence of subdued, vaguely hip-hop-influenced rhythms that underpin some mid-tempo cuts, but Breakdown is the work of an artist who is assured and comfortable, meaning that she's not afraid to play straight-ahead music or to delve deep into her soul. Consequently, it's the most intimate album she's ever made. A by-product of this development is that the record isn't as visceral or immediate as her earlier work, and some of the songs need a few plays before they sink in completely. That may mean that some listeners will not have the patience to truly hear Breakdown for what it is -- a low-key but revealing record that is intimate even when it rocks the hardest. But those who do will discover that its best moments -- whether it's "Scarecrow," her moving tribute to hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, or the nakedly autobiographical "Mama I'm Strange" -- find Etheridge exploring new, refreshingly honest territory that suits this subdued musical style quite well.

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