There are at least two categories of disappointment. You can want one thing but get another. Or you can get what you want but still want it to be…better. Something Worth Leaving Behind, Lee Ann Womack’s highly anticipated follow-up to the phenomenal I Hope You Dance, falls into both categories.
Womack is one of contemporary country’s best singers, a claim she’d already proven when “I Hope You Dance” became the soundtrack for graduations and birth announcements across the heartland. That signature record inspired such spontaneous adulation that, eventually, an I Hope You Dance book became a New York Times bestseller. Womack’s encore is built around a title track that expects to scratch, and to cash in upon, the same transcendent itch. Indeed, the Something Worth Leaving Behind campaign — the album, which begins and ends with versions of the title song, and its tie-in book — hit stores all on the same day.
But the new song isn’t worth a brand. “I Hope You Dance” was a deceptively simple record; its hopeful lyrics were set amidst an arrangement brooding and bittersweet enough to underscore why hope is necessary. By contrast, “Something Worth Leaving Behind”, a paean to the value of lives lived outside the spotlight, is simply simple-minded. Songwriters Brett Beavers and Tom Douglas not only conclude, against all evidence, that Elvis had to die to be famous; they also lump King Midas and Jesus Christ into the same verse — a grouping that either mistakes Midas for a real man or confuses Jesus with a mythological figure.
Succeeding songs fail just as miserably to repeat earlier successes. For instance, “Forever Everyday” (the new album’s attempt at a “Stronger Than I Am”) mourns the adult loss of childlike wonder in a series of “precious moments” vignettes. And even when Womack and her co-producers choose intelligent songs, such as Julie Miller’s “I Need You”, they bury them in busy, noisy, and, worst of all, generic pop and classic-rock arrangements. (“Nice cock-rock guitar,” my wife yells from the kitchen.)
With hushed pop bluegrass and comparatively spare uptempo country-rock, I Hope You Dance balanced perfectly the demand for both older and newer country sounds. Something Worth Leaving Behind abandons that unique strength even as it embraces subpar repetitions of the crossover move that made Womack famous. The results, no matter which side of the pop-twang divide you’re on, will likely be very disappointing.