36 songs, no apologies: Morgan Wallen delivers more (much more) of what made him country’s king
The song “Outlook” arrives 35 tracks into Morgan Wallen’s 36-track behemoth of a new album, which means that by the time you finally get to it, you’re pretty well primed for whatever hard-won knowledge he’s got to drop. And for the song’s first few lines about “20/20 hindsight vision,” it seems clear where the country star is going: Two years after he was caught on video drunkenly using the N-word to refer to a friend — an incident that sparked widespread debate about country music’s historical relationship with race — the beginning of “Outlook” suggests that Wallen has done some serious thinking about the way he views the world and his place in it.
Then the chorus hits.
“Now my outlook on life is different than it used to be,” he sings over fingerpicked acoustic guitar, “My outlook is: Someone’s up there looking down and looking out for me.”
Wallen’s realization about white male privilege, in other words, is that it feels like a blessing.
Which of course it has been. “Dangerous,” Wallen’s 2021 double LP, withstood a brief moment of backlash to become that year’s biggest album of any genre, and no fewer than three advance cuts from the new project, “One Thing at a Time,” are currently in the top 10 of Billboard’s country singles chart, including the sensual “Last Night,” which just logged its third week at No. 1. Thanks to expected-to-be-ginormous numbers on Spotify and the like, “One Thing at a Time” will almost certainly debut atop the Billboard 200 just as Wallen prepares to launch a U.S. stadium tour sure to be among the year’s most lucrative. (He’ll play Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium on July 22.)
In an era when streaming and TikTok have decentralized the music business, diminishing the power of its old gatekeepers, the only vote that matters is the people’s, and clearly they’ve rallied behind Wallen; indeed, it’s not so much someone above who saved him from ruin but the millions of devoted someones here on Earth.
The question regarding the new album, then, is how Wallen is utilizing his privilege.
You might wonder why (or whether) he has to reckon with it at all. By many accounts — including those of prominent Black artists such as the country singer Darius Rucker and the rapper Lil Durk, with whom Wallen cut the 2021 duet “Broadway Girls” — the 29-year-old singer is no racist. He’s inarguably benefited from a system built on racism, yes, but in that he’s no different from countless other white entertainers, politicians and businesspeople.
What’s clear about the country musician, who touched down Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena for the first of two sold-out concerts, is that being caught on video drunkenly using the N-word has not derailed his career.
Across these three dozen songs, though, Wallen keeps tiptoeing up to the idea that he’s made grave mistakes and learned valuable lessons; he’s clearly aware of the perceived need to atone for what he did — “One Thing at a Time” is not a pugnacious, Kid Rock-style denouncement of the encroachments of cancel culture — yet he continually stops short of demonstrating any real introspection. The result is something of a paradox: an album weighed down by an obligation it refuses to shoulder.
Which would be easier to reconcile if Wallen didn’t occasionally enter the culture-war fray in real life, as when he accepted an invitation to perform at a recent inaugural celebration for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who this week signed a controversial bill restricting drag performances in Wallen’s home state. Political activism like that chips away at the reasonableness of an artist’s expectation that his music be considered outside politics.
But another sign of Wallen’s privilege is that he’s granted that leeway. So what is there to notice about “One Thing at a Time” beyond the fact that it dodges the tough issues few in his audience likely want him to engage? It’s too long, for starters, though that goes without saying in a streaming economy whose set-it-and-forget-it ethos has also inspired marathon LPs by Zach Bryan and Luke Combs.
Wallen has said the album’s 36 tunes fit into three groups: traditional country songs, hip-hop-inspired songs and songs in a mode he calls “dirt rock” that pull from the ’80s-revivalist heartland-isms of the Killers and the War on Drugs. And for sure there are distinct examples of each, such as “Everything I Love,” which puts lush vocal harmonies over a galloping beat à la classic Alabama; the throbbing “180 (Lifestyle),” which interpolates elements of “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan; and “Whiskey Friends,” which all but borrows the central riff from the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.”
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But most of the rest blur together over nearly two hours in a sound neatly triangulated by those styles; the typical Morgan Wallen song blends country, rap and rock in a way similar to the typical Post Malone song (albeit in slightly different proportions). His skill as a singer — and he’s among the most skilled in Nashville — is the flexibility of his voice, which can move from a snarl to a croon in just a few lines; sometimes he does both in the same line, as on “Money on Me,” an account of his propensity to disappoint in which he captures a mix of shame and pride as he tells a potential lover, “Honestly, I wouldn’t put my money on me.”
His flow has gotten sharper than it was on “Dangerous”; he’s capable of handling trickier cadences, as on the slinky “Me + All Your Reasons” and “Good Girl Gone Missin’,” which places quick staccato phrases amid folky guitars. And his vocal runs in a song like “Keith Whitley,” titled after the late country singer, have an appealing gruffness even at their nimblest.
Because “One Thing at a Time” is so uniform in its sound, what elevates any given tune is the depth and specificity of the songwriting, for which Wallen, a gifted writer himself, enlisted dozens of Nashville pros for help, including his longtime pals Hardy and Ernest along with Miranda Lambert, Hillary Lindsey and Ryan Hurd. (One way to ensure your re-embrace by the country establishment: Become one of Music Row’s most reliable employers.)
The least interesting songs here are those about self-destruction and the quest for redemption, not just because they sidestep the particulars of Wallen’s notoriety but because they lapse into tear-in-your-beer clichés — a failure of both courage and taste. Far more vivid are numbers about sex like “Last Night” (“I kiss your lips / Make you grip the sheets with your fingertips”) and songs about lost love like “Tennessee Numbers,” in which he recalls the picture of him and an ex that used to serve as the lock screen on her phone.
“’98 Braves” and “Tennessee Fan” use clever sports imagery in stories of romance, and “Thought You Should Know” addresses the singer’s mother with touching familiarity. Then again, once he tells her about his new girlfriend and they have a laugh about the “dumb s—” his dad’s been up to, he lets his mom know that “all those prayers you thought you wasted on me must’ve finally made their way on through.” Another problem solved.
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