Kim Richey's recordings have always too mercurial to pin down. She's stubbornly followed her muse down the lanes of contemporary country, Americana, and adult alternative pop, but has never stayed in one place too long. Thorn in My Heart possesses country music's spirit at heart, but it's not exactly a country record. Produced elegantly and sparely by Neilson Hubbard, it is a brave, confident collection that is irredeemably melancholy. In order to pull this off, a songwriter needs to possess the twin gifts of lyric and musical understatement. Richey doesn't disappoint. Her characters are honest, vulnerable, wary, and confused; their disappointment never bitter; their optimism never totally vanquished when things don't turn out properly. They are lovers hopeful, wary, and wronged (but never commitment-shy), family members, and those who want to flee from dead dreams and bad relationships. On the country-tinged title track, the protagonist asks a lover who has pushed the boundaries to the breaking point if, no matter how hard she loves him, he will continue to be a source of pain. Carl Broemel's (My Morning Jacket) pedal steel, Pat Sansone's (Wilco) harmony vocal, and Will Kimbrough's acoustic guitar anchor Kris Donegan's electric and her voice. "London Town" is a lonely love song, accented by Dan Mitchell's French horn. "Breakaway Speed," with its reverbed guitar, is a midtempo country-rocker illuminated by textured pedal steel and killer guest duet vocals from Jason Isbell and harmony vocals by Trisha Yearwood. It's about a lover left reeling after being seduced and dumped in record time. The rocker "Come On"'s protagonist exhorts her beloved to flee with her from a dead-end town -- though she's not convinced he will. She's even willing to wait -- a little. "Love Is," a sparse country waltz, examines all of its contradictions; it's adorned with shimmering piano and a ghostly clarinet by Doug Mosher. In "I'm Going Down," her protagonist, accompanied by banjo, fingerpicked guitars, and piano, dedicates herself to escape at any cost. "No Means Yes" is a classic country, "no tell, motel" love song. Set closer "Everything's Gonna Be Good" displays Richey's character's sucked-up courage as she whistles past heartbreak's graveyard with nearly jazzy grace. Richey's characters on Thorn in My Heart inspire strong empathetic ties with listeners via simple, beautiful melodies and lyrical accuracy by turns poetic and accessible. It is yet another in a string of excellent releases by her, but it's also something more. It integrates everywhere Richey's been yet inhabits a terrain completely of her own design.