With Lucky Old Sun, Chesney returns with his 13th studio album just 13 months after the release of his platinum album, Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates. As the reigning entertainer of the year of both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, Chesney accelerated his career in the early part of the decade by virtue of his increased touring labors and the concerted effort to tap into the listening pleasures of his audience. Equal parts Garth Brooks and Jimmy Buffett, he’s parlayed his penchant for theatrical concert shows and life-affirming anthems into a career unmatched by his contemporaries.
Chesney has stood as the genre’s ambassador for the last five years, but his artistry in that period has seemed mired in the same routines. Too reliant on tunes revolving around booze and the beach, or saddled with songs about life as a troubadour musician, he’s often struggled to make a true artistic impression that stretches him both creatively and personally. On Lucky Old Sun, he lapses back into the island rhythms that have been a steady influence on his recent musical output, and the man and the music remain stuck at a crossroads.
Chesney turns inward in ways that have been hinted at recently (the laconic rhythms of 2005’s Be As You Are, for example), but never fully explored on record. Few uptempo numbers are included here, demonstrating the deliberation that Chesney endured in the midst of recording the album. The first single, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” (with backing from Bob Marley’s band, The Wailers) demonstrates energy, and its a fun anecdote about a wayward young man who just can’t follow the preaching and the teaching of a man of the cloth. Chesney infuses “Ten with a Two” with personality, and it also provides a welcome spark that’s missing from the rest of the album. But the calypso-laced tune has a warmed-over subject material (a country boy’s beer goggles lead him astray) prove that he can only be a truly compelling vocalist when his material and musical choices are first-rate.
Pairings with some of music’s most notable stars help boost Lucky Old Sun, preventing the album from being too dark and drab and providing Chesney a chance to rise above the melancholy and mediocrity. Dave Matthews joins him on the lead track, the laidback “I’m Alive,” a positive testament to resilience that would’ve been equally effective as an album closer. Chesney and guest Willie Nelson sound as refreshing as ever on the pop standard “Lucky Old Sun,” a song that benefits from the slower tempos set down by producer Buddy Cannon. And on “Down the Road,” a duet with Mac McNally, the duo delves into the circle-of-life story with sweet sincerity. These collaborations keep Chesney from being mired in his own introspection and give him a purpose and interpretive precision.
Chesney’s more brooding and unabashedly moody than ever before, but these tendencies lead to monotony at certain stages of Lucky Old Sun. He sounds tepid on tracks including the non-descript “Way Down Here” and the overly sentimental “Spirit of a Storm,” and the ballad “Boats” never shows much of a pulse. Although these songs are a more mature, complete portrait of Chesney as a person, Chesney the artist lacks a connection to the material, echoing his personal restlessness and need for reflection.
The mellow atmosphere of Lucky Old Sun is agreeable, but contributes to the notion that Chesney is at the mercy of his song selection. Without the natural vocal talent of his contemporaries, he relies heavily on meaningful material met with smart production choices. The modern-day cowboy is capable of wistful, melancholic moments (consider 2002’s “A Lot of Things Different,” penned by famed songwriters Bill Anderson and Dean Dillon), but the sheer number of those moments here hinder its cause: to show Chesney as a flesh-and-bone human being behind the fun-and-sun demeanor.
Although his legacy will be as one of the most popular road warriors in country music history, Chesney’s music is sometimes simply a vehicle to continue his touring juggernaut. While Lucky Old Sun disproves that notion, and his humble honesty on these eleven songs (the bonus album features four live tracks) is admirable, he’d be better served with a little more energy next time to match the ebbs and flows that show his true personality and passion.