The Albums of Winter : **** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty

EMMYLOU HARRIS "Bluebird." Reprise

*** 1/2

As thematically cohesive as her "Ballad of Sally Rose" concept album, but boasting a far stronger group of songs, "Bluebird" explores lost love from inside and out, from as near as a shared heartbeat and from as distant as an ocean of tears.

While the dominant issue here is love in collapse, the ever-present beauty and strength of Harris' voice prevent a slide into self-pity or despair that lesser singers would encounter with the same material.

Other than some excessive production that overshadows the unadorned pining of Rodney Crowell's "You've Been on My Mind," there's hardly an error in judgment to be found. Certainly Harris' choice of writers is sterling: Crowell, Butch Hancock, the McGarrigle sisters, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Tom Rush.

Best of all, in "A River for Him," about a woman who tries vainly to reclaim her heart from the undeserving man she has given it to, Harris--an infrequent songwriter--has penned her most poignant song since 1975's "Boulder to Birmingham." There's also her devastating reading of Hiatt's "Icy Blue Heart," a masterful study of emotional isolation.

With songs as perceptive as these and treatment as caring and evocative as Harris gives them, it just doesn't get any better.

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