Making a major label album is a commitment to the art of compromise, and Trace Adkins provides a prime example of this exercise. His musical output has been schizophrenic, with playful absurdity and potent confessionals side-by-side on every studio album since his arrival in 1996. Courting the radio crowd while satisfying the artist within is a tough task, but even the split-personality albums that Adkins has authored provide glimpses of a fully-realized creative force.
On his tenth studio album, the appropriately-titled X (Ten), Adkins seems to be in stronger control of his destiny. After a runner-up finish on The Apprentice and his No. 1 smash “You’re Gonna Miss This,” he’s riding a new wave of confidence that results in a well-rounded, yet more disciplined album. X runs the emotional gamut from amusing to astute, and once listeners delve past the radio-friendly ditties, they’ll hear some of his most inspired work transpire.
Adkins has owned an unhealthy habit of recording incredibly regimented songs that could only be written in a Music Row office, and X shows that he’s not immune to repeating history. The skirt-chasing tale, “Sweet,” is a direct descendant of his Badonkadonk days. Its blistering guitar recalls .38 Special, appropriate given his partnership with the band on this fall’s Crossroads, and starting X with the rock-country number would suggest an incessant stream of hyper-charged, hillbilly anthems. But Adkins digs deeper, largely avoiding similar traps as the album inches forward. (The exceptions: hicks-from-the-sticks tales “Hillbilly Rich” and “Marry for Money.”)
It’s a welcome shift in direction. Adkins’ bad-boy posturing, despite a high degree of enthusiasm on rowdy numbers, isn’t nearly as intriguing as his deeply moving admissions of grief and guilt. For folks even remotely interested in real, unvarnished country music, there’s plenty to admire here. The sublime resonance of Adkins’ baritone speaks volumes and he revels in the spare musical settings laid out by producer Frank Rogers. Both seem utterly dedicated to soothing unsatisfied traditionalists by offering three of the best songs in Adkins’ career. Self-torture never sounded so good; the man presented in this trio of heartrending ballads is battered and bruised, and the listener is better for it.
“I Can’t Outrun You” finds its narrator searching for emotional space in the wake of a bad breakup. As he fails to combat a stubborn memory, the gentle piano and Adkins’ gruff delivery call into question whether he’ll bounce back from the low blow. And that song has a worthy companion, “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink,” which conjures up memories of Vern Gosdin with its story of the persuasive power found in a bottle’s cool comfort. A stirring work, one replete with steel guitar flourishes, it’s a cold detailing of a drinking binge. As Adkins notes, when the narrator imbibes liberally, it’s a sad case of “the drink (taking) a man.” Of course, in country music, God is the choice cure for such a demon, and the album’s last track sounds out a note of salvation. “Muddy Water” is a call for remorse, exploring a man’s restless journey towards redemption, boosted by the goosebump-inducing sounds of a gospel choir.
Also worthy of mention is the tragic account “Till the Last Shot’s Fired.” Written by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, it springs from a unique point of view: the ghosts of men who’ve given the ultimate sacrifice for wars they now deem unnecessary. As with Adkins’ 2005 single “Arlington,” it doesn’t rely on stilted depictions of these military heroes. The appearance of the West Point Cadet Choir gives the song an air of authenticity and hope, even as the peace sought by these fallen soldiers seems elusive.
Although not a leading light in the genre, Adkins’ reputation as a reliable hitmaker has afforded him creative choices, and X demonstrates a surpassing ability to connect to the core concepts of country music. It’s an album that supplies more art and less compromise. With his flesh-and-blood depiction of a country boy, Adkins proves that he can take risks and be rewarded. If justice is served, his under-the-radar routine won’t be a permanent act.