After getting fed up with the music business, Shelby Lynne, always true to herself, walked away and formed her own Everso label in 2010. Apparently, she's had a change of heart. I Can't Imagine appears on the stalwart Rounder label distributed by Concord. Recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana with a small band and a few select guests, the set's ten tracks run a gamut of styles Lynne's explored in the past, from West Coast singer/songwriter musings and New Orleans- and Stax-inspired R&B to rock and Americana, woven inside her own signature brand of sophisticated adult pop. Self-produced with assistance from her music director Ben Peeler, Lynne wrote or co-wrote everything here. Two fine songs, "Love Is Strong" and "Be in the Now," were co-written with Ron Sexsmith. The former is a ballad that weds Owen Bradley-esque Patsy Cline countrypolitan to post-psych pop. The latter features rootsy flatpicking and slide guitars offset by a drum break and a funky electric piano line worthy of Allen Toussaint. The hardest rocking cut, "Down Here," a militant anthem to tolerance, recalls Neil Young's "Southern Man" in places. It would be right at home on contemporary country radio -- if the song's pro-gay stance didn't contradict the format's radically conservative views. The easy retro soul groove on "Sold the Devil (Sunshine)" co-written with Peeler, reveals just how easy it is for Lynne to deliver maximum feeling in a song. She doesn't sing the lyrics -- she is them. "Following You" delivers a sparse, spooky intro that transforms into a lovely, minor-key romantic ballad played by a trio of Lynne on acoustic guitar and piano, Peeler on guitar and pedal steel, and Leni Stern guesting on n'goni. She's at her very best, however, on the album's bookends. Opener "Paper Van Gogh" is breezy, yet utterly convincing West Coast singer/songwriter pop. The closing title track (one of two co-written with Pete Donnelly), is classic country, complete with whining pedal steel, balanced electric and acoustic guitars, brushed snares, and a hip bridge. Her protagonist expresses profound and unswerving empathy for a loved one shaken by hard times. I Can't Imagine is confident, assured, and fiercely independent. What ties its various threads together is the songwriter's unguarded heart, expressed by her near iconic vocal prowess, and we've come to expect nothing less from Lynne.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek