Thursday, May 8, 2014

album review: 'storyline' by hunter hayes

So here's an odd question: how much does age matter in music?

On the surface, it shouldn't matter at all. There have been young men and women of prodigious talent who can wow people no matter how old they are - hell, look at Michael Jackson as a member of the Jackson 5. But let's change the question slightly: how much does it matter in country music?

Because like it or not, most country is grounded in more mature subject matter, if not history and tradition. Neotraditional country is rooted in that spirit that tends to demand an older voice to deliver it, because let's face it, most young country stars aren't incredibly interested in the past. But even bro-country acts who just want to talk about trucks, women, and drinking do almost require their audience to at least be old enough to buy beer to at least relate with the situations you describe. As such, you really don't find many teenage stars in country music, especially in comparison with other genres like pop, hip-hop, or punk.

Enter Hunter Hayes, who signed on as a songwriter with incredible talent with Universal in 2008 - when he was seventeen. He got his start touring with Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts before dropping his solo, self-titled debut album - and I'll admit, I didn't care for it. I thought the production was extremely processed, the songwriting not particularly inspired, and despite his real talent in composition and performance, the album felt interchangeable to me. A few snarkier critics branded him as the country version of Justin Bieber, but given Bieber's musical evolution, that always struck me as unfair. And thus, I vowed to give Hunter Hayes a second chance with his newest album Storyline. How did that go?

Well, I'll be blunt: I went into this album looking to thrash it. I'll admit that, after I found his first album at best forgettable, I was expecting to write this record off and give it one of my characteristically harsh reviews. But after listening to this record multiple times, I've had a bit of a change of heart - because really, I want to like Storyline by Hunter Hayes more than I do. But there are a few major problems here that are kind of hard to overlook, no matter how hard I want to like most of this album.

So let's start with the element I liked the most: the instrumentation and production. Going in I was expecting pop-country, with all of the plucky, vibrant guitars and lack of grit that you'd expect, and that's exactly what I got. What was surprising was how many genuinely good melodies I found on this record, some decent guitar solos, and enough in the two instrumental vignettes to consider Hunter Hayes a pretty talented composer, at least from an instrumental point-of-view. What I liked most about this was his approach to composition, because most of these melodies are not all that intricate or far removed from neotraditional country, but with the well-chosen crisp electric guitar tone and some solid instrumental variety with some strings and accordion cropping up, he was able to make simplicity for him. That said, the album closing track bears a striking resemblance to 'I Won't Give Up' by Jason Mraz, and if that song is released as a single, there would probably be grounds for lawsuits in Hunter Hayes' future.

But putting that aside, I was also surprised how much I liked a lot of the songwriting too. From a technical standpoint, Hunter Hayes is a solid songwriter, with his poetry having a lot of natural flow and occasional snippets of nuance - not a lot of country texture of description, but effective for charming his target audience with sweet, generally agreeable love songs. And indeed, Hayes is in his best element when he's singing those sorts of love songs, which makes the opening two tracks, 'Wild Card' and the title track, pretty damn effective as straightforward love songs. Granted, it helps that the title track was co-written by Eric Paslay who is continuing to show himself as one of the best new songwriters in the business, but I'll give Hunter Hayes credit where it's due.

But that's not saying there aren't a few songwriting issues. It might be a bit of a nitpick, but when Hayes spends so much of 'Tattoo' singing about how some girl's name looks so good next to his, and then he doesn't name the girl, you can tell it's a wish-fulfillment song for his young female fanbase. 'Secret Love' falls into the same category - we never get any reasons why their love needs to be kept a secret, but I guess I understand the thrill of it all. And while I get the vague anti-bullying consolation message of 'Invisible' and as a kid who was bullied growing up I get the emotional appeal, but at the same time it goes for vague sympathy and thus doesn't quite feel as real as a song like, say, Eminem's 'Sing For The Moment'.

Indeed, this leads to my big issue with Hunter Hayes: in that as a performer, I get very little out of him. He's a solid singer and has charisma, but not a lot of emotional range. You can always hear him straining to push for rougher, more emotional notes, and combined with the lack of texture in his voice, I keep wondering if his songs would resonate with me if coming from a more interesting, textured vocalist. And what's worse is that it renders his break-up songs a little hard to take seriously. Songs like 'You Think You Know Somebody' and 'Nothing Like Starting Over' try to have an undercurrent of anger, and it isn't quite convincing coming from Hunter Hayes. And that's saying nothing about the worst track on Storyline 'If It's Just Me', where Hayes tries to present all manner of things that he might be doing wrong and he's fully prepared to walk away from the relationship and leave the girl 'in the past' - but since he always frames it as a question using 'if', it comes across like he doesn't believe he's the problem or if he does he's going to massively guilt-trip the girl in question. And it's a really poor fit for Hunter Hayes, as cattiness does not fit his voice whatsoever - in fact, it was his voice seemed to be the biggest problem, but why?

And then I heard the song 'Flashlight', and I got my answer. It's a song about Hunter Hayes always knowing there's a higher light who shines down on him, a touch of the divine and oh, hi, Jesus! And then it completely made sense to me: Hunter Hayes has the voice of a modern Christian rock act waiting to happen: smooth, clean, perfectly suited to hymns and songs about love and god and not conveying the slightest iota of convincing drama in his songs. The last time I talked about a Christian-leaning act was Switchfoot, and honestly, I see a lot of similarities between Hunter Hayes and that band. And while I think Hunter Hayes is a much better composer and songwriter, they both have the same problem for me in that there's little texture in their lyrics and neither are really capable of deeper, dramatic material, at least for me. And look, some of that might come with age and more experience, but as it is, I don't get a lot of out of this album.

Now granted, I'm not part of the demographic that loves Hunter Hayes, and if you're part of that fanbase, you'll probably like this album because it is better than his first record. But at the same time, Hunter Hayes comes across as a very talented performer who is limiting his market by writing material solely for that fanbase - and even by that standard, the break-up songs on this record with the exception of 'When Did You Stop Loving Me' really come across as unflattering to him. And this frustrates me because I think with more time and a little more experimentation, I could really come to like Hunter Hayes. As it is, this album is decent but nothing that blew me away either outside of the title track, so I'm giving it a 6/10. As I said, if you're a fan or in his target demographic, you'll love Hunter Hayes' Storyline. If you're not either of those things like me... well, it's worth a listen, but I'll put money on Hunter Hayes going to Christian rock within a decade - you can probably count on that.

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