A couple years ago, after writing a song for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, appearing in the film, and releasing her full-length debut Alabama Song, Allison Moorer's ascent to country stardom seemed inevitable. But despite an encore in which she performed her "Soft Place To Fall" at the Oscars, commercial success never really arrived, in part because Alabama Song didn't make clear which side of the country fence she stood on. Was Moorer a Nashville team player, or more of a free spirit? The answer is a little of both. Like older sister Shelby Lynne, Moorer insists on setting her own rules, but where Lynne's crossover stab I Am Shelby Lynne suffered from unsureness, Moorer's second album finds the singer fully in control of her vision. Moorer co-produced and co-wrote (with husband Doyle Primm) The Hardest Part, an album whose narrative of lost romance and infidelity coheres perfectly. The disc begins with a breakup ("The Hardest Part," "Day You Said Goodbye"), flirts with reconciliation ("Bring Me All Your Love," "Is It Worth It?," "Think It Over"), and ends up calling it quits for good ("No Next Time" and "Send Down An Angel," which smartly crosses "Stand By Your Man" with "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Or does it? "Feeling That Feeling Again" hints at the start of another vicious cycle, with Moorer's amazing voice lending the song just enough sadness and longing to leave the story ambiguous. Granted, heartbreak is hardly unique to her music, but few songwriters pull off the pain with such consistency and aplomb. Taking several side trips off the main country road, The Hardest Part has a lot in common with Lucinda Williams' self-titled breakthrough, boasting observant and poetic takes on life and love posed as universal truths. ("Think It Over" may be the best country anthem since "Passionate Kisses.") The disc closes with a hidden track addressing the death of her parents, demonstrating that the story of The Hardest Part's protagonists could have ended far more tragically. It illustrates Moorer's great strength and courage, but by the end of such a masterpiece, that strength was already a given.

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