2017 has brought new music from today’s biggest stars and longtime favorites. Here’s the rundown on five new albums already released this year.
Sara Evans putting out her first album on her own label ought to be an artistic statement of independence. Instead, we have Words, an album with some interesting compositions that are compromised by baffling choices in the studio.
The opening track, “Long Way Down,” is moody, rootsy, and fascinating to listen to. Evans sounds phenomenal in such a setting, which is why it’s all the more disappointing that she spends most of the rest of the album trying to make the same watery country pop that she was never able to pull off convincingly.
The only moments that work are the ones where she remembers the core tenet best articulated by Patty Loveless: A singer’s job is to not get in the way of the song. The title track is one of those moments, where accompanied by a gorgeous acoustic guitar, Evans documents the rise and fall of a relationship. Album closer “Letting You Go” is another, a heartbreaking goodbye to her son as he leaves home.
Hopefully, her next album will use this handful of highlights as a blueprint for moving forward.
Recommended Tracks: “Long Way Down,” “Words,” “Letting You Go”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell solidifies his claim as one of the great songwriters of his generation with The Nashville Sound, an album that reunites him with his backing band without sacrificing the intimacy of this landmark solo albums, Southeastern and Something More Than Free.
This collection of songs radiate empathy, whether he’s brilliantly indicting white privilege (“White Man’s World”) or documenting the hopeless despair of small town America (“The Cumberland Gap.”) His wish for his baby daughter is that she finds “Something to Love,” which has all the poignancy of “I Hope You Dance” without any of the bombast. “Anxiety” powerfully captures the despair of depression, and “If We Were Vampires” rises above its title as it connects the deep human need for love to our inevitable mortality.
The Nashville Sound opens with one of its strongest tracks, where Isbell wonders if he’s “The Last of My Kind.” Perhaps he is. But as long as he’s around, we have the benefit of his unique voice providing fresh perspectives on American life in 2017.
Recommended Tracks: “The Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap,” “White Man’s World,” “Something to Love”
God’s Problem Child
Willie Nelson keeps it simple on God’s Problem Child, an album with few of the production bells and whistles that have dominated his solo work in recent years. The songs are given the spotlight to shine on their own, and the best of them shine quite brightly.
God’s Problem Child has its strongest moments when it explores how Nelson experiences his existence as a man in his eighties. “Old Timer” captures how his mind can lie about his age but the mirror reveals the truth. “Still Not Dead” has fun with internet rumors about his demise. “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” is a heartfelt tribute to his departed fellow traveler, Merle Haggard. And “It Gets Easier” reminds that walking away does indeed get easier with age, but it doesn’t work when it comes to the love of your life.
Much of the rest of the album sounds trite in comparison, perhaps because songs about “Lady Luck” and a “Butterfly” interrupt a journey of self-reflection that only a person of a certain age can embark upon. But Nelson is in fine voice even on those tracks, making God’s Problem Child one of his stronger latter day efforts.
Recommended Tracks: “It Gets Easier,” “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” “Still Not Dead”
Love and War
Brad Paisley is more musically ambitious than ever, but his clunky songwriting remains his Achilles’ heel.
He is great at identifying an idea for a song, but falls down in the execution of that idea. “Dying to Meet Her” is a beautiful idea for a song – a man can’t wait to die so he can be reunited with his departed wife. But Paisley makes his most common mistake: thinking that a clever title can do the heavy lifting and failing to put in meaningful details that make the song believable. The same pitfalls can be found on “Heaven South” and “Last Time For Everything.”
His songs sound like bullet point lists instead of fully realized creations, as if he put the title on the top of the page, brainstorms a few ideas connected to it, and then just arranges them so that they rhyme. Only one track – “Gold All Over the Ground” – rises above lyrical mediocrity. It is a truly great song, and it didn’t need to be framed as a Johnny & June tribute to work. In fact, that framing works against it.
Love and War comes alive when Paisley turns the spotlight over to his true talent: stunning musicianship. The man is a beast on the guitar, but also has a great ear for unique combinations of instruments that sound fresh and vibrant. In particular, his two collaborations with Timbaland – “Solar Power Girl” and “Grey Goose Chase” – are a blast to listen to, even if the former tries too hard lyrically to be a Carrie Underwood epic and the latter is, again, a play on words in search of a song.
I do believe that if he found someone else to do the singing and the writing, Paisley could put out an album for the ages. Maybe now that the radio play is slowing down, he will consider a career in production. His greatest strength happens to be in the area where mainstream country music is the weakest. I’d love to hear his sound paired with a singer and a set of songs worthy of it.
Recommended Tracks: “Grey Goose Chase,” “Gold All Over the Ground,” “Solar Power Girl”
From a Room: Volume 1
Let’s all take a step back from making Chris Stapleton the genre’s latest messiah, and remember that he’s something both simpler and rarer than that: a damn good singer-songwriter.
That, if any, is the message of From a Room: Volume 1, a stark, largely acoustic collection that gives Stapleton’s vocals and songwriting pen nowhere to hide. If you know “Either Way” as a hidden Lee Ann Womack gem, listening to it here sounds like hearing the demo tape that got her to cut it in the first place. And if you know “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” as the forgotten hit from Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind album, you’ll be thrilled to know it still holds up under Stapleton’s interpretation.
There’s a sense of familiarity to From a Room that keeps it from being entirely fresh, but it still succeeds as a showcase for Stapleton’s multiple talents. “Up to No Good Livin'” is a charming plea for a reformed party guy to be trusted by the woman who got him on the right track but isn’t completely convinced he won’t get derailed. His gift for phrasing gives “I Was Wrong” its authenticity, as you can believe both his remorse and his ability to mess up so much that he needs forgiveness in the first place. “Them Stems” pulses with such palpable desperation for a fix that it’s something of a masterclass in black humor.
From a Room works as a reactionary statement to Stapleton’s own surprising success, choosing to double down on the fundamentals instead of buying into his own hype. It may not have the seismic impact that Traveller did, but I’ll revisit it far more often anyway.
Recommended Tracks: “Either Way,” “Up to No Good Livin’, “Them Stems”