Sara Evans is a singer with a big voice who knows what to do with it. Her phrasing is conversational; she rarely tries to goose the emotion in a song by stretching out syllables or leaping registers. Evans has never been a singer of hardcore country music — she likes pop, and she’s not afraid to apply her big vocal power to a big, cheesy power ballad. The difference between Evans and many singers who work in that particular territory is that her power ballads really pack a punch.
The title song and the album’s first single, “Slow Me Down,” is a fine example of Evans’ contemplative style of ballad singing. She sings the first verse as though she’s speaking thoughts flitting through her mind. That’s followed quickly by a big, brassy chorus, and Evans makes the shift from quiet meditation to bold declaration with thrillingly smooth abruptness. “Slow Me Down” features some clever lyrics — its verbal hook is the notion that the guy she’s addressing needs to hurry up and slow down her exit from their relationship. Like the woman in the song, Evans is fully in control of this musical situation.
Evans went through a 2007 divorce so public and scandalously detailed, it could have been a subplot on the TV series Nashville. Her private life slowed her productivity — she’s only released three albums of all-new material since 2005 — but it didn’t mar the quality of her performances. It’s always foolish to guess at an artist’s motivations, but it’s undeniable that on her last album, 2011’s Stronger, and this new one Slow Me Down, Evans has located a new undercurrent of steely firmness that has only strengthened her singing.
Slow Me Down features a number of duets with male singers, including Gavin DeGraw and Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray. Those guys are merchants of the maudlin, especially compared to Evans’ best vocal partner here, Vince Gill, with whom she sings the most traditionally country song on the album, “Better Off.”
Sara Evans is in her early 40s, a fact I bring up to place her current achievement in a country-music industry context. She’s surrounded on the charts by younger men with their big hits about drinking and partying. The younger women creating the best, most thoughtful and witty new music, such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, are struggling to get played on country radio and achieve bigger sales. Country music right now prizes male youth and aggression over female experience and assertiveness, which makes the hit-single success of this album’s title song all the more heartening. Sara Evans is one of the few performers whose voice hovers over this situation, blithely ignoring it, avoiding any traces of exertion or self-pity. She then swoops down into the trenches, making difficult, complex relationships sound like the best hard work a person could do.