Monday, October 31, 2016

album review: 'cosmic hallelujah' by kenny chesney

I don't think I've entirely been fair to Kenny Chesney.

Granted, there's a limit to how fair one way or another I can be about this guy, because for as long as he's been a consistent presence in country, he's not exactly been an artist that sparks a lot of attention, critical or otherwise, even despite a considerable number of hits. Outside of your average Jimmy Buffett fan club, I don't see many country fans in the mainstream or otherwise saying their favourite artist is Kenny Chesney - hell, he's got a crossover 'hit' right now with an artist I otherwise like and yet I can't really be bothered to care about it all that much - it's breezy, lightweight material, often at the beach, the sort of sedentary music that flows in one ear and right out the other.

So when I started getting requests to cover this... well, suffice to say I didn't have high expectations. I may have been overly harsh to Kenny Chesney's last record The Big Revival, which did have a few songs that ended up growing a bit on me in time, but I wasn't holding out a lot of hope for Cosmic Hallelujah. For one, the lead-off single was 'Noise', the sort of non-country track complete with some of the most gratuitous pitch-correction I've ever heard in the genre - whatever that song was, it certainly reflected a change in instrumental direction, perhaps even a point where Kenny Chesney had decided he wanted to blaze his own experimental trail! And while a part of me had no expectations this was going to work well at all - he's only got two writing credits on this release - I will admit that it's a bit of an interesting spectacle to watch Kenny Chesney, seventeen albums into his career, decide to venture out of an extremely well worn comfort zone? So okay, what does this mean for Cosmic Hallelujah?

Well, I can say this: it was a big mistake to give Kenny Chesney more credit, because if this is supposed to be 'experimental' or a step outside of Kenny Chesney's comfort zone, it's one of the laziest, intellectually bankrupt records I've heard all year, especially from country music. This is the sort of record that flirts with real ideas but then backpedals into the most cheapest sort of copouts, the record that wants to get credit for embracing change while putting in none of the actual work to challenge an established formula. Coupled with instrumentation that alternates between being bland, stale, or completely miscalculated... folks, I was preparing myself for the sort of tentative experimental step that we've seen to mixed results from Dierks Bentley or bad results from Keith Urban, but this might be worse than the both of them.

And it starts right from the top with Chesney himself. Look, I'd never say I've been entirely fond of this guy's vocals: he goes broad but he's never had the over-the-top personality of a Toby Keith or the pipes of Keith Urban or Chris Young or the organic charisma of a Dierks Bentley or Jake Owen or even Blake Shelton. Now he does have some charisma - his career wouldn't have lasted this long if he didn't have some presence, even if his brand of lightweight beach country doesn't demand it - but Cosmic Hallelujah definitely highlights the sharp limits of his dramatic range, which can feel painfully limited. And that's before we get the blatant autotune of 'Noise', or that odd Dierks Bentley imitation he was doing on 'Rich And Miserable', or the pseudo-rapping that he did on 'Bucket' that might be the most embarrassing thing he's ever done - seriously, between the filters and his odd emphasis on certain words, it was stilted as hell! It's very telling that even with Pink phoning in her contributions to 'Setting The World On Fire', she still was able to give a more layered and compelling performance than Chesney was on the entire album.

And then we get to the production and instrumentation, which is arguably the most agreeable part of this record in that it's mostly inoffensive, if not particularly memorable. The acoustic and electric guitars are loud without having crunch or serious groove, the drums alternate between barely noticeable and obviously programmed, and the backing vocals are either unimpressive or in the case of 'Rich and Miserable' sound like they're imported from an X Ambassadors song, it's really jarring. And yet for as much as this album is going for anthemic swell, it consistently falls flat for me and there are a variety of reasons why. In some cases like 'Setting The World On Fire' the cloud of hazy synth and fake sandy drums just render the song lacking color or spark - similar case for the overprocessed 'Noise' or the borderline trap snares on 'Rich & Miserable' or the overdubbed haze of 'Coach' - and in other cases the layers of guitar so close to the front of the mix just let odd tones bleed through, like that flattened buzzy riff on 'Bucket' or that distant clanking that's midway through 'Bar At The End Of The World' or the blatant 'American Kids' rehash 'Some Town Somewhere'. And sure, I'll give Chesney points for actually bringing in a pedal steel for 'Jesus and Elvis', but there's a part of me that feels it's too little, too late, an attempt to inject melody into a record that long ago subsumed any primary driving tone into the haze or tried to beef it up to only fall further flat. So yeah, don't expect any experimentation or switch-ups here beyond clumsy missteps towards an overly processed mainstream sound that already feels stale - but here's an open question: for as much as Chesney likes to fly that 'pirate' flag, why do we never get any sort of rough rollick to his material that might be reminiscent of that seafaring sound? Hell, Sturgill Simpson got that right on 'Sea Stories' this year, and yet the most Chesney ever delivers is a choppy acoustic sound that barely has groove and he's long driven into the ground.

But no, if we're going to look for my fundamental issues with this album and why it pissed me off, we need to talk about lyrics... because Kenny Chesney is trying to say more things with this record, right from the first song. And that message is 'hey, the world could end tomorrow and global warming is raising the sea levels, but I like the sea anyway and it's not like I can change any of it, so let's get drunk and stop thinking about it!' Now before we go on, let me unpack everything wrong with this. One, I've never seen any evidence that Chesney has ever contemplated these sorts of heavier subjects on record before; two, way to trivialize an ecological catastrophe that we as human beings caused; and three, way to take the easiest way out of any deeper subject matter: I'd think about it, but that demands effort and I'd rather get drunk! Worse still is the framing: there's no trace of melancholy, no sense of reflection or disillusionment, just the sort of vapid ignorance you might get from a Pitbull song! And that general disinterest and laziness becomes a big issues whenever this record wants to comment on anything: on 'Noise', he does your standard 'information overload in the digital age' rant, and yet instead of actually sticking to any coherent point, he says that the only way to be heard is to contribute to even more noise! 'Bucket' is particularly obnoxious, where he follows in Blake Shelton's footsteps of flat out incorrect spelling and grammar references by making a 'bucket list', turning the b into an f, and then blowing it all off to get drunk again in his 'chillaxification'... except for dumping his 'bitch-lying lover' - wow. Then there's 'Rich And Miserable', which seems to be trying to rail against the failed American dream but between the political references and awkward juxtapositions rings as more confused than anything, especially coming from Kenny Chesney whose net worth is an estimated $225 million dollars! Am I supposed to buy into this sort of whining that can't even make a coherent point? 

And that laziness shows up in other ways too: the borderline bro-country checklist hookups and parties of 'Winnebago', 'All The Pretty Girls', and 'Some Town Somewhere' to the overused pirate iconography of 'Bar At The End Of The World' that long ago stopped making sense, to the solemn song dedicated to former coaches called 'Coach' that was both painfully saccharine and yet so overblown and nonspecific that I couldn't remotely sympathize - and this is coming from a former athlete who will unironically watch sports movies! And there's the problem: with that lazy framing comes the sort of detachment that'll utterly cripple the dramatic swell of your songs, and render any actual deeper connection superfluous. It's why 'Setting The World On Fire' can't think of greater stakes beyond getting drunk and high on the street and in hotel rooms, or why 'Jesus & Elvis' sets up a bar started by a mother of a deceased veteran and dedicated to the things he loved, and yet it can't help but feel tacky and more about the image and tenuous parallels between Jesus and Elvis than any of her pain that still lingers on. Could these songs have worked if they were framed a little tighter or smaller, a little rougher around the edges to bring in some vestige of authenticity? Maybe, but that'll also would probably come with tighter writing or a more nuanced performance, neither of which Chesney delivers.

And I know what you're thinking - Kenny Chesney barely wrote this record, what's the point of getting angry about this, it's not like he's trying for some grand artistic statement. And for about a third of this record, the lightweight party stuff that's basically interchangeable with the rest of his discography, I would agree. The rest, however, is so lazily framed, badly written, sloppily produced and flatly delivered that there's no excuse, especially for an artist who has lasted this long in the industry. 3/10, easily one of the worst country records I've covered this year, and no way in the Nine Hells I'm giving this a pass, especially when too many inevitably will for 'making a statement'. Yeah, a statement of laziness, detachment, and with all our luck, irrelevance. Skip it.

No comments:

Post a Comment