What’s the difference between a signature style and an artistic rut? It’s a question that’s hard to avoid contemplating when listening to Kenny Chesney’s latest record, which finds him exploring familiar musical and lyrical terrain, but with considerably less enthusiasm and insight.
That the album is a slog to listen to in its entirety is all the more disappointing because it starts off strongly. Lead single “Never Wanted Nothing More” has a wonderful, bouncy melody, and the bluegrass-tinged arrangement gives Kenny’s familiar vocals a new setting to explore. Even better is the second track and follow-up smash “Don’t Blink”, which challenges listeners to value their lives and the people that they love who are still around, because one day you might be looking back alone.
Then, it gets a little murky. “Shiftwork”, his duet with George Strait, is shockingly joyless. The detached vocals make sense at first, as the everyday life of a shiftworker is documented, but Chesney sounds just as disinterested when he’s taken an early retirement and started is now a bartender on a tropical island. Even the island beat is low-key.
There are points on the album that sound more like low-rent Kenny Chesney knock-offs, particularly “Got a Little Crazy” and “Scare Me.” It’s the type of material you’d expect a young wannabe Chesney to record, the left-overs at the Music Row publishing companies that were written with Chesney in mind but he passed over for better material. Only he didn’t, and he’s actually recording paint-by-number filler that should be beneath his status as a multi-platinum recording artist.
There’s been a lot of talk about “Workin’ for the Groceries”, due to the subject matter being a single mom who strips to pay the bills. It doesn’t take much work to make such a character sympathetic – the deck is already stacked against her, how can you not sympathize with her plight? The real challenge is making the character interesting, and the song focuses so much on the lurid details of her surroundings that you don’t get nearly enough of an inner monologue from the woman herself. It doesn’t explore the moral issues at play as effectively as City High’s “What Would You Do?” or write a believable character like the prostitutes in country classics like “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” and “Fancy.”
The album has a few other nice moments. There’s a cute wistfulness to “Wife and Kids”, where Chesney longs for family life. “Demons” is an interesting character study steeped in country music’s hellraiser traditions, but it’s a bit disconcerting to hear coming from Chesney, who has always been more about the celebratory side of alcohol and chasing women. It’s a stretch for him, doing a song that you’d expect to hear from Montgomery Gentry or Trace Adkins, but at least it’s an attempt to expand his palette a little bit.
Overall, there’s not much to recommend here that you haven’t already heard on the radio. This is an album for Chesney die-hards alone, unlikely to garner him many new fans. He’s capable of far more than this.