Kristin Chenoweth is hoping to become as pop-u-lahrrr in country music as she is on the stage. Just to cover her bets on her first country album, the “Wicked” star sometimes resembles the callow Galinda of that musical’s first act, and sometimes the enlightened Galinda of the second.
And just like that Broadway fairy queen, “Some Lessons Learned” is at its most fun when it’s at its shallowest. When she camps it up, it can be a kick, at least if you’re already somewhat stuck on the theater’s officially-most-adorable diva.
But as the super-serious title indicates, Chenoweth is way, way into the message-song side of country, especially in a handful of yawningly meaningful ballads penned by pal Diane Warren.
Chenoweth’s transition isn’t as unnatural a course as it might seem. For one thing, Laura Bell Bundy already blazed this same theater-to-twang crossover trail, with somewhat successful results. For another, she can occasionally sound like a dead ringer for Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, who isn’t a bad country superstar to resemble right now.
The silliest tracks let Chenoweth get away with the most personality. One of those is Warren’s “I Want Somebody (To Bitch About),” which lets the singer get away with something her upcoming TV series, “Good Christian Belles,” couldn’t: the B-word.
“What Would Dolly Do” is an almost unforgivably hokey hoedown – all the way down to its “W-W-double-D” refrain (sung by the legendary Jordainaires, no less) – that Chenoweth carries off by sheer force of firecracker personality. Ditto for “I Didn’t,” which rhymes “He liked the toilet seat up” with “He thought I should be a C cup.” (It’s sheer coincidence, surely, that the album’s two most enjoyable numbers reference bra size.)
Beyond that, things get pretty soppy. The opening “I Was Here” is an inspirational children’s anthem, which is bad enough, in concept, before the recording ends with an actual children’s chorus. “Fathers and Daughters” is the five-hundredth country song of 2011 about fathers and daughters, and the four-hundredth best.
In the tough-to-take love song “What If We Never,” Warren poses the question: What if our perfect love had never been realized because we never exchanged glances as strangers on that street corner?... a blissful remembrance that 0.00001 percent of the population will relate to in the real world.
Promisingly, producer Bob Ezrin makes a rare foray into country after past successes with Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and KISS, but he squanders his time trying to ape modern Nashville conventions instead of bringing something new to them.
A fear of outsiders may inform the decision to release Chenoweth’s album on Sony Masterworks instead of through their Nashville division, perhaps as a result of the latter label feeling burned after unsuccessful attempts to push Jessica Simpson as a core country artist.
Chenoweth doesn’t come off as a carpetbagger, at all – she performed at Opryland before ever making it to the Great White Way – but she could use collaborators who bring out her sass instead of her sobriety. It’s a little like listening to a version of “Wicked” that takes place almost entirely after Galinda grows up and learns a whole set of life lessons.