POP MUSIC : A Country Study in Black and Blue : *** CLINT BLACK, "The Hard Way". RCA

Inside the Nashville city limits, you don't get to rock the boat and stay on top, but on his fourth album, Clint Black gets a sitar solo into the second cut, and over the course of these 10 songs he refuses to reinforce his image as a somewhat sunny, bland hunk-in-a-hat. "The Hard Way" is a rigorous, downbeat study of desperation, and Black bears down through every hard-bitten moment.

The current single "We Tell Ourselves" is an anatomy of self-deception and doubt, and Black sings it with clenched concentration. In the title cut, he negotiates the rapids of treacherous memory with a bracing succession of vocal dips and curls. In a variety of settings, his wiry, flexible voice assumes solid character without being unduly flashy.

The album's immersion in heartbreak is relieved only sporadically, and Black doesn't seem much interested in those recesses. Tough self-examination is the order of the day, and these songs--written mainly by Black and Hayden Nicholas--do the job in arrangements that rest on key pillars of country music--Merle, Hank, et al.

The only thing missing is the kind of colorful imagery that gives great country songs their timelessness--the couplet that comes closest is "a man has a will, but woman has her way." But it's hard to fault Black for focusing on the emotional fires rather than verbal cleverness, even if it does leave some of the material a bit anonymous. At least he didn't take the easy way.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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