Although country stars generally do not write their own songs, the songs they choose from the Nashville publishing houses reveal something about the musical personas they are trying to project, even if all they say is, "I want to have a hit." Julie Roberts actually participated in the writing of four of the songs on her second album, not having had any creative input into its predecessor. But whether she is picking from the available demos or forging her own efforts with the help of others, it's clear what she is trying to project: heartbreak. She is the first to admit this, noting in the press biography accompanying advance copies of Men & Mascara, "I enjoy writing sad songs. If somebody brings in a happy idea, I like them if they are not too, too happy. Sometimes I'll say, 'That is just too happy for me.'" Roberts' tendency toward the dark side jibes well with her vocal quality, which has a torn, ragged, emotional edge that underscores the unhappiness in the lyrics. Her affinity for emotional turmoil is what causes the comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and Shelby Lynne instead of the sweet Faith Hill or the rowdy Gretchen Wilson, and gives her appeal beyond Nashville. And she plays to that affinity over and over on Men & Mascara, which certainly doesn't contain any songs that are too, too happy. Even when something positive is being described, as in "Smile" and "Too Damn Young," there is more than a suggestion of trouble. And the rest of the time, trouble is the main topic of conversation, as Roberts sings -- in the voices of women who are romantically obsessed -- to and about men who aren't worthy of them. "Men and mascara always run," she notes in the title song, and that's pretty much the way that the male sex is portrayed in song after song; "She was looking for love, he was looking for fun" is the song's other key line. Even realizing this, Roberts' women can't help themselves. The best they can do is to try to resist taking up with married men until they're sure they've left their wives ("A Bridge That's Burning") or try to escape a bad relationship by leaving town for parts unknown ("First to Never Know"). The only apparently worthy lover is the absent one in the heartrending album closer, "All I Want Is You," and the conditional verb tense ("Everyone says, 'Move on'/That is what you would want") suggests that he may have left the singer a widow. If all of this sounds like old-fashioned female victim music, Roberts invests these women with dignity amidst their troubles and, forced to sing powerfully over producer Byron Gallimore's aggressive arrangements and loud music mix, she gives them a toughness, no matter how dire their circumstances. The result is a Nashville country album that transcends the usual clichés to a remarkable extent.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann