Sunny Sweeney’s 2007 debut album was fantastic, but too raw and twangy for country radio to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Thus, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame produced no charting singles. Sweeney re-emerged in 2010 with “From a Table Away,” a single that took on a glossier finish so as to be more radio-friendly. Still, the core country elements were uncompromised. The strategy worked, netting Sunny Sweeney the first Top 10 hit of her career. Likewise, the remainder of her sophomore album has enough polish to be palatable to country radio, but Sweeney’s traditionalist bent remains intact, as the album retains an identifiably country sound throughout (such that the “pop-country” label would be a misnomer). Concrete sounds poised to build on Sunny Sweeney’s newfound career momentum, yet it also finds an artist able to make reasonable commercial concessions without sacrificing her own identity in the process.
Mainstream country music all too often settles for one-dimensional songs about domestic bliss, summer fun, country livin’, you name it. But Sweeney takes us back to the classic themes of country music – cheating, drinking, heartbreak – and puts her own distinct and creative spin on them. This is evident in her breakout hit single “From a Table Away,” which casts Sweeney as the infamous “other woman” character in the love triangle. The song walks us through the narrator’s revelation that the married man she loves has been lying to her as much as he’s lied to his wife, and that the fantasy of having him to herself will never become reality. But it’s the similarly-themed “Amy” that ranks as arguably the album’s best track. In a confrontation between wife and mistress, Sweeney asks for forgiveness for her own actions, but also asks the wife to recognize the own role she herself has played in her husband’s course of adultery. “Amy” is a song characterized by raw, unabashed honesty, and that’s the stuff of a country music classic.
In addition to her smart, punchy songwriting, Sweeney excels in her ability to inject emotion and personality into her song lyrics. That’s evident in the excellent current single “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” in which she delivers opening lines “Leaving’s hard/ Trust me, it’s really bad” with the tired, weathered tone of one who’s been there – and she has been there, having drawn on her own divorce as inspiration in her songwriting. Even the most well-constructed lyric can fall flat if the performance doesn’t pop, but Sweeney gives strong, commanding performances that strike all the right emotional chords in the lyrics. Album opener “Drink Myself Single” might not stand out much from any other good-timing country drinking song if delivered by a less-capable vocalist. But Sweeney injects spite and vindictiveness into lines like “I wanna know what it’s like/ To stagger in the house like you do every night/ Sneakin’ in the bed like I don’t know the truth…” thus adding a layer of snark and bitterness to the uptempo honky-tonk tune. Similarly, her anger-ridden delivery of “Helluva Heart” elevates the tell-it-like-it-is “You done me wrong” song a significant degree above the typical kiss-off number.
There are many reasons why die-hard country music fans have grown disillusioned with the format’s current state, with the absence of country instrumentation being one. But the greater loss has been the lack of well-crafted, resonant lyrical material matched with emotionally-connective vocal performances. That’s one of the biggest reasons why country radio has become such a yawn. Country music needs more artists like Sunny Sweeney, and more so now than ever before. Sweeney demonstrates a strong connection to the country music of the past, while also showing that she has plenty to say as an artist herself. If radio holds onto to her, she would present a formidable threat of making the format interesting again. Regardless, Concrete is a rock-solid effort strong enough to withstand more than a few repeated listenings.