The New-Diva Disease

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By definition, a diva is a rampaging female ego redeemed only in part by a lovely voice. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to be one, but a new generation of female talent appears to be weirdly enamored of the word and the idea.

Faith Hill is one of the new would-be divas. She's the country one — the sweet blond married to fellow sweet blond Tim McGraw. Hill's previous album, Breathe, sold 7 million copies, which gives her pretty good diva credentials. She's popular, but her new album, Cry (Warner Bros.), proves she doesn't really understand why.

Hill's two best hits — 1998's This Kiss and 1999's The Way You Love Me — were frisky mid-tempo numbers that played to the strengths of her voice. It's not a big instrument, but it's smooth and confident and relaxed. On Cry, that ease is absent for frustratingly long periods. The album opens with Free, a nice enough tune about overcoming your demons that Hill characteristically undersings. The first sign of trouble is the title track, a big, diva-ish song that she strains to pull off. It works because the hook is a winner--"Could you cry a little/Lie just a little"--but Hill seems very ill at ease when she's required to blow away the swirling chorus at the heart of the song.

By the middle of Cry, things are seriously out of whack. The songwriting strategy is to alternate among big love ballads, upbeat rockers and quieter, more revealing personal songs. But when Hill opens up, she shows us almost nothing at all. On This Is Me, she sings, "My heart breaks for the homeless/I worry about my parents ... I am just like everybody else/I try to love Jesus and myself." If This Is Me is really her, then McGraw is one bored cowboy.

When Hill goes for diva moments, the songs collapse beneath her. Beautiful has spoken-word verses that recall late-night Cinemax soft-core and the chimerical cliches of Bonnie Tyler. "I love the way you hold me with your eyes/Hold me so tight that I can't move/It's like everything I've ever known is a lie, and you're the simple truth." Beautiful ends with one of those cheap "Take it up a notch!" key changes, as does Unsaveable, the song that follows. Hill's longtime producers, Byron Gallimore and Dann Huff, have done her no great favors by using such tricks.

There are a few tunes — Stronger, One — that work just fine, and Hill's flirtation with gospel (a choir performs a conspicuous backup on a few tracks) is convincing enough. But mostly Hill has made an album that shows off her weaknesses and obscures her charms. Even divas need to give the audience what it wants.