Walk the Line

)?? e on the other end of the phone sounds like that of Alejandro Fernandez -- the enfant terrible of Mexican pop -- but something seems off. For one, the man comes across as impossibly cheerful, almost content. There are no hints of the short-tempered, egomaniacal star who partied into the wee hours with anybody willing to have a tequila shot or two or three. There are no signs of his supposed animosity for the media and their all-too-personal inquiries. There are no indications of the trapped soul with cover-boy looks -- the tortured artist who sold millions of records thanks to a powerful, clear-as-water voice that makes him one of the best live performers of his time, if not all time.

"I can't do anything about what's in the past, but I realize maybe I could have done some things differently," says a cordial and patient Fernandez. "I can honestly say that I've not only matured as a singer, but as a person as well."

This newfound humility and earnestness is evident on A Corazón Abierto. Fernandez has the same beautiful voice and undeniable charisma, but for Corazón he's peered through the looking glass and released an album that is at times painfully personal. It isn't the sort of output you would expect of Fernandez, but that's what makes it all the more wonderful.

The disc may be shocking for some, but it's the latest evolution in a career that has taken many twists and turns. From the beginning, big things were expected of Fernandez. The son of ranchera music godfather Vicente Fernandez, young Fernandez was supposed to carry the family torch.

"Considering my upbringing and what I saw around me everyday, I can't deny that I didn't have some kind of an advantage," says Fernandez. "But at the same time I'd be lying if I said I've never felt any pressure."

One such example is when a visibly nervous five-year-old Fernandez was given an unexpected introduction to the world of celebrity after being urged to sing "Alejandra" alongside his famous father inside a jam-packed auditorium in Mexico. Even after having rehearsed the song, Fernandez was so scared he abandoned all stages for more than a decade.

In 1991 Fernandez released a self-titled album. It contained a slew of lyrically deep Mexican compositions like "Necesito Olvidarla" ("I Need to Forget Her") and "Bromas" ("Jokes"). While staying in touch with his roots was obviously a priority, the singer wouldn't enjoy widespread popularity until he began to explore pop music.

Fernandez credits "Como Quién Pierde una Estrella" ("Like Losing a Star"), a smash single from his 1995 album Que Seas Muy Feliz, with opening doors for him in the United States. In the flamenco-influenced, horn-driven song, Fernandez sings about the pain and hardship he's going through after having lost a love interest.

"Without a doubt that song has special meaning for me because it created so many things for me that might have never been there otherwise," Fernandez says. "You know there are certain songs I could never leave out of the mix, and that one is certainly at the top of the list."

Despite Fernandez's success, he has always been hounded by the sort of sensational lifestyle that has served as bait for the gossip sharks. To his own detriment, the 34-year-old Fernandez hasn't always played by the rules.

Although he has repeatedly vowed his commitment to Ximena Diaz, Fernandez has never proposed marriage to the Colombian model and to this day maintains his preference for keeping all options open. It was Diaz who ended up pregnant when Fernandez was still married to his first and only wife, America. There have been other rumors of infidelity -- including a nasty one involving Mexican beauty Linda Alarcón that Fernandez quickly refuted -- and tales of drunken revelry.

His act away from the stage needed some fine-tuning, but there was never any denying Fernandez's ability whenever he was on it. The sensual female-favorite conveyed a disarming charm. His velvety yet powerful voice allowed him to drop the microphone way below his waist and still be heard, while his incredible range permitted him to alternate seamlessly from mariachi serenades to smooth pop ballads.

Fernandez understood that, despite his incredible talent, he needed to put his wild lifestyle in check. This realization has everything to do with his now having children old enough to read the sometimes-sensationalistic stories written about him.

"I think just being able to see my kids grow up and having a family has really helped me at this point in my career," Fernandez says. "It would be really hard to look them in the face and have to explain yourself because you slip in one way or another. They're all a little bit older now and have a better understanding of what's going on."

It's little surprise that A Corazón Abierto presents the most complex and sympathetic portrait of Fernandez to date. His interpretations of tracks such as "Que Lástima" ("What a Shame") and "Me Dedique a Perderte" ("I Dedicated Myself to Losing You") are both harrowing and powerful. The singer acknowledges that mistakes have been made, relationships have been shattered, and much of his life has been dedicated to careless trifles, caring about all the wrong things. The day of reckoning has arrived for him, and all he can ask for is forgiveness. It's an honest if somewhat bleak portrait.

Besides the added intimacy, the album's production is also Fernandez's most adventuresome so far. Rippling guitars, flowing strings, and mariachi lines snake through an album that treads on folk, rock, and ranchera elements with organic ease and conviction. Horn-heavy pop tracks such as "Se Va" ("She's Leaving") and "Canta Corazón" ("Sing My Heart") leap forward with bottleneck-speed guitars, as opposed to "Si Alguna Vez" ("If Sometime") and "Dame un Minuto" ("Give Me a Minute"), in which Fernandez's voice takes center stage in conveying a much more relaxed tone. All the while, he never veers away from the album's apparent apologetic theme.

In all respects, A Corazón Abierto is Fernandez's most fully realized album yet.

"I don't think I've ever worked harder putting an album together," says the singer, who sorted through more than 100 songs before settling on the ones that make up the album. "I think people are starting to see an Alejandro Fernandez who's all grown up now."

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Fernando Ruano Jr.