Reba McEntire set out to make a stone-cold country album, but country music's most charismatic personality couldn't be that cruel. Stronger Than the Truth features a few unapologetically tortured heartbreakers, but at its best the project spills seeds of hope.

The Brandy Clark co-written "Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain" is a fine example of this tension. Lyrically "This ain't no little girl heartache," and McEntire leans hard into a story of deception, infidelity and crying in the rain. "Standing by your man, that's a broken plan," she sings to start each chorus. If a newcomer offered those words it'd be country music heresy but McEntire's conviction is something the First Lady of Country Music would surely approve of. So where's the optimism?

Producer Buddy Cannon and McEntire build an arrangement that slowly builds to a catharsis for those recognizing their "golden wedding ring don't mean a thing." In choosing this song McEntire becomes an ally, and with a friend one can find healing. This is a good time to mention Cannon's contemporary approach to an artist and vision with so much history. Done wrong, Stronger Than the Truth (available April 5) would feel like a woman trying to relive the glory days, but it's not that. A few tracks won't work on Top 40 country radio, but none could be categorized as expired.

Stronger-Than-the-Truth Album Cover
Big Machine Records

Continuing the theme of hope, "The Clown" shrouds independence until the very last stanza. The first verse describes the cruel reality of a world that keeps moving as horrible things happen, in this case hearing that your lover no longer loves you (if there's a theme on Stronger Than the Truth, this is it). McEntire doesn't ease up until the last possible moment when she sings:

"When the circus is over and the tents are pulled down / The truth is the show must go on for the clown."

Two songs that refuse to compromise are the title track and "Your Heart," a scorned woman's ode that follows a brief Mexican guitar interlude.

"You can give a man the eye when you walk in the room / Go on, give him your sweet smile, let him smell your perfume / Give him your number, whisper your name but hold on to just one thing ... Don't give him your heart," McEntire says with unflinching savagery.

Watch: Reba McEntire Talks About "Freedom" 

This song is in many ways the Yang to the Yin of "Freedom," her inspiring, new love anthem and the most commercially viable single she's released in years. This is ironic because McEntire says one of the joys of making this album was the freedom that comes with being removed from the radio single cycle. You'll hear her enjoying herself on swingers like "Swing All Night Long With You" and the Ronnie Dunn co-write "No U In Oklahoma," two songs that allow a breath of air before resuming an otherwise emotional ride. Through the tears you'll hear her enjoying the tale of "Cactus in a Coffee Can," as well. This song is best heard without preparation.

It's tempting to point out parallels between the heartache found on Stronger Than the Truth and her own heartache after a divorce. Don't do it. Don't even imagine her singing "Freedom" to her new boyfriend. These songs are gifts to be appreciated selfishly.

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