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Countrypop Life: Love and theft
Singing Rich Gang songs and getting the words wrong
Morgan Wallen: One Thing at a Time
Most obviously, at thirty-six tracks it’s too fjucking long. And the majority of the songs are slight, not least sixteen week Billboard number one “Last Night”, which is two verses, two choruses, short outro that recapitulates the same middling wordplay as the choruses. The combination of quantity and low degree of difficulty together, however, appears to be what his young streaming audience wants: stats suggest the majority of listeners are plowing through the whole 1:52 of the record, and a few billion thirds of cents do add up. The sequence of one-things-at-a-time resembles that old country tradition, the variety show—here’s a beer song, here’s Eric Church for three minutes, make sure to visit the Opry gift shop on your way out. Wallen goes out of his way to play nice, toning down Dangerous’s signature coarse high-end to instead find plenty of simulated passion in the safety of mid-range, and you can bet that NashvilleMoth has engineered each setting to glossy flawlessness. Now and then they even let Wallen express himself, within limits. The times he perks up are when he gets a good sports metaphor to work with, and when he cosplays Young Thug on a “Lifestyle” localization, which might make centenarians recall a precedent in another hugely popular/problematic variety show host (and genuine fan of Black music.) Without having to go down on one knee, the Miranda Lambert co-write “Thought You Should Know” and album centerpiece is a classic mama’s-boy song; it was meant to be the sop for country radio, only they too preferred “Last Night”. If he’ll never fill Garth’s hat, it’s not just his head’s, or his mouth’s, fault.
Grade: B PLUS (“Thought You Should Know”, “98 Braves”, “180 (Lifestyle)”)
Perhaps even more impressive than earning Kacey Musgraves a number one is getting a spoken word piece, “Fear and Friday’s (Poem)”, into the top 40, though that gives away how peripheral music is to his success. He’s a sadboi, albeit not in a toxic way; he has tunes, and not yet the voice to make them sound different from each other. Typically this is where Nashville would step in and polish him up real good, but as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol has learned, he has a fierce independent streak, insisting on producing everything solo. This speaks well to his integrity, which it’d better since it’s the main thing he’s selling. I’ll salute that, though I won’t play this a third time.
Grade: B MINUS (“Hey Driver”)
Tamara Stewart: Woman
Australia-to-Nashville singer, a couple of decades into the grind. She’s not the most prepossessing vocalist, and the arrangements offer no special excitement. But the standout tracks are among the year’s most poignant country. “Just a Woman”, an answer to both “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Stand by Your Man”, notes there hasn’t been as much change since the Sixties as one might wish. “Mondays” is an elliptical song about trauma as well as a reminder that it’s a victim’s right to be elliptical. And “The Orphan” is possibly the finest song ever written about childlessness, not least because of its apparent ambivalence.
Grade: B PLUS (“The Orphan”, “Just a Woman”, “Mondays”)
Luke Combs: Gettin’ Old
No major change of direction after last year’s minor disappointment Growin’ Up; instead, this is 50 percent longer and includes, reluctantly, a cover that’s given him enough mainstream fame to make cameo appearances in Wallen/Aldean/Anthony thinkpieces (which is pretty unfair to someone who was willing to listen to Maren Morris explain systemic racism to him over Zoom), but not enough to get many non-country critics to listen to him. If they wish to, they should start with the historic What You See Ain’t Always What You Get; then once they’ve memorized 15 or so of its songs, they can start on his second-strongest album. It may be even more nostalgic than Growin’ Up, with the heartland rock rendering his wistful tales digestible for those of us with no particular memories of past blondes and rescued dogs. His comparative advantage over Wallen et al., aside from being a total (Non-Insurrectionist) Wife Guy, is he can tell a story; what prevents him from being a genuine interpretative singer is he always comes across as Luke Combs singing. No matter how hard he tries to inhabit the checkout girl in “Fast Car”, the decision to leave tonight or live and die this way is ultimately out of his hands—which does make the song more ambiguous, not better. The other best song also isn’t his: “Where the Wild Things Are”, by an in-law of NASCAR’s Petty family, gets at the sense of freedom that used to be the implicit subject of American Western art while recognizing that you can only speed like you’re drunk so many times before you flip over a guardrail, metaphorical or otherwise.
Grade: B PLUS (“Where the Wild Things Are”, “Fast Car”, “You Found Yours”)
Bailey Zimmerman: Religiously: The Album
If you’re keeping track of post-Wallen bros, this is the guy with (i) both a given name and a surname, and (ii) no interest in rap aesthetics, which does narrow one avenue for cancellation. He used to work a union job (yay) laying fossil fuel pipelines (well, thanks for the career change) before bringing his blue collar bona fides to Warnermoth. The title track and current hit shows his strength: a powerful, highish, slightly gruff voice which he uses to blast feelings that could fill a church—about a woman, or women. The album is almost all more of the same, eschewing writers’ round wordplay for young male angst that might as well be post-grunge with a banjo. Nashville having certain standards, the result beats Nickelback; it’s just one-dimensional. Zimmerman and producer Austin Shawn haven’t quite worked out how to make his singing sound right post-digital correction (a few melismas are dreadful), though to be fair it took Wallen’s crew a few years to master this. He should get more versatile with experience, and (with luck) with someone who reminds him of what he really is.
Grade: B (“Religiously”, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”)
Megan Moroney: Lucky
Her breakout hit was “Tennessee Orange”, about the heroic sacrifices inherent in being a Bulldogs fan dating a Volunteers fan who may or may not be Morgan Wallen. I thought it was pandering, but the album suggests she’s just super into Georgia football (as she asserts God Himself is, the old bandwagoner.) Appearance is another recurring subject, in “I’m Not Pretty”, which is about how she’s pretty—her voice certainly is, with dabs of rasp and fry that one could interpret as either artfulness or modesty—and “Girl in the Mirror”, about how she has to learn to stand up for herself or else she’ll get bags under her eyes. If all this leaves a suspicion that actually, she’s the one in the Mean Girls’ (Political Action) Committee, UGA has socialized her well enough to aim for plausible deniability, and she’s very clever about it. In “Traitor Joe”, Joe’s the one being be-traitored (besotted young Republicans sigh in disappointment), while in “Sleep on My Side”, she makes it very clear she’s not slut-shaming a guy, good heavens, why would she do such a thing. The closing “Sad Songs for Sad People” gets a partly-true fact check: Kappa Deltas get sad sometimes, and they can use songs whether they are or not.
Grade: A MINUS (“Sleep on My Side”, “I’m Not Pretty”, “Traitor Joe”)
Jelly Roll: Whitsitt Chapel
I doubt anyone expected a guy whose first fifteen minutes of fame were for getting his mixtape cease-and-desisted by Waffle House to make the most serious popular music about popular religion since the first Withered Hand album. While the criminal justice system may consider his worst sins atoned for, guilt still burdens him. “I only talk to God when I need a favor”, he confesses like his soul depends on it, but this seems a more honest relationship with the Creator than the American average, not least because it means he talks to God a lot. He’s so committed to his spiritual quest that he gets away with calling a song “Nail Me”, making its chorus a magnificent mixed metaphor that has him getting stoned through glass by someone on both a horse and a throne (in an ivory tower, so touché.) If his theology isn’t mine, that’s fine—he’s “better with the lost than the found”, he says on the best song (a Miranda co-write, funny how this keeps happening), and they need it more. I can share the joys in his journey and in his music, which has guitars of surprising variety, and programming flourishes from former Christian rap producer Zach Crowell. And Jelly Roll’s earnestness and epistemic modesty buys his roar a lot of goodwill—hopefully not least from the Creator when He finds His charge hungover in a church pew. Maybe even from Waffle House’s legal department.
Grade: A (“The Lost”, “Save Me”, “Hungover in a Church Pew”)
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