The short version: Kenny Chesney delivers one of his best albums with ‘Songs For The Saints.’ His introspective side that’s launched some of his best songs is in full force here, and overall, it’s a fitting tribute to his home.
Editor’s note: All proceeds from the sales of this album go toward hurricane relief for the people of St. John.
The long version: For as much as Kenny Chesney has milked songs about his island home into the ground, you can’t deny his passion for it.
Of course, his carefree, sometimes mindless tunes like “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” overshadow some of his best work, causing him to garner a more negative reputation than he probably deserves. A fair criticism of Chesney these last few years though is his willingness to play things safe. 2013’s Life On A Rock was a daring, excellent album that also revolved around his homeland, but the lackluster response made him go back to the drawing board and churn out unexciting material.
Songs For The Saints finds Chesney back in full form and at his best though. The unfortunate destruction of the Virgin Islands caused by Hurricane Irma last year is the catalyst of inspiration for this album. Songs For The Saints is Chesney’s way of giving back to his home and the people who live there. It’s also his most mature, wistful album to date.
In fact, the lead single, “Get Along” is the outlier of the project, remaining its weakest link by far. It’s not that the verses are bad, they just feel like they’re supposed to belong in their own separate songs exploring different themes. The dots don’t connect, in other words. Still, as far as its place on the album is concerned, it remains a beacon of hope and a moment of levity alongside “We’re All Here,” with a breezy, uptempo, organic feel.
On the note of mixes though, Songs For The Saints also sees Chesney fully embracing his island influences to farther extents than before. The mixes often bring together a bright combination of pluckier acoustic lines, spacier drums and steel drums to create a sense of calm relief in otherwise moody, reflective songs.
The title track itself is also an exception, bringing in more of an anthemic vibe to get the ball rolling with the album and also containing the main thesis of the album (which, as mentioned before, is paying tribute to his home). Like “Get Along,” the writing can sometimes feel broader than it should be, but the overall sentiment resonates.
Breezier songs like the gentle, “Every Heart,” and the reggae-influenced “Love For Love City” (feat. Ziggy Marley) are more direct, personal statements about Chesney’s love for the islands, but they’re still framed in a way that invites the listener in as well. Pain is a powerful sentiment on this album, and it’s one instance where a broader scope actually works, especially when the actual details and imagery Chesney uses are some of his best.
For example, “Island Rain” is about the liberation of pain and letting go, a relatable topic even if Chesney uses island rain as the metaphorical cleanser.
While hope is an important element of this album however, it’s when Chesney adopts a darker, lonelier mood where he really shines. “Pirate Song” is pure poetry in action, with Chesney painting a picture in a way that invites the listener on his imaginary voyage. It’s escapism used in a good way, with a dreamier atmosphere contributing nicely to the song’s sense of adventure. Chesney is also able to match that intensity on a cover of Lord Huron’s “Ends Of The Earth,” easily one of the best songs on the album. It doesn’t change much from the original, and Chesney isn’t a stellar vocalist on a technical level, but I’ve never doubted his sincerity with his performances. It also fits nicely with the album’s theme of searching, whether it be for an answer to the bigger problem at hand or an answer to who we are as people. That instrumental break after the first chorus is one of my favorite moments in music this year.
Elsewhere, “Gulf Moon” feels like Chesney’s singing right to you or a group of friends at a bar, once again painting a picture well with what’s the strongest lyrical track here. The cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season” (where Chesney is joined by Buffett himself) is another fitting cover, as it shows the extent to which people are willing to stay out of love for their home despite the impending danger.
And just when you think Chesney has pulled off the best tracks already, “Better Boat” swoops in and hits you like a ton of bricks. The pure emotion and heartache behind this track is truly what country music is all about, and Mindy Smith’s backing vocals add an extra layer of depth to the track. It’s a beautiful song and a good way to say that while Chesney and his people will rise again, the pain is still there from what they’ve lost despite the song’s hopeful tone.
Songs For The Saints is an album that ultimately shows Chesney in top form in every way. The choice of covers fit the theme well, and Chesney’s own material shows him sharpening his skills and acting more reflective, a mood that’s always suited him best.
- Favorite tracks: “Better Boat (feat. Mindy Smith),” “Ends Of The Earth,” “Pirate Song,” “Gulf Moon,” “Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season (feat. Jimmy Buffett)”
- Least favorite track: “Get Along”