The short version: While there are some issues with ‘Wish You Were Here,’ these are issues that will likely be smoothed out over time, making this a fine debut for Joshua Ray Walker.
- Favorite tracks: “Working Girl,” “Canyon,” “Last Call,” “Fondly”
- Least favorite track: “Love Songs”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: If you want to make a great country album, sometimes you have to go back to the basics.
Despite his biography being sorely underwritten, Joshua Ray Walker is a Dallas, Texas native who looked to transform his lowest experiences and heartaches into music on his debut album, Wish You Were Here.
Given that heartbreak and country music are two of the oldest friends in history, Walker looked like an artist worth keeping an eye on. Despite this album’s original release date being the summer of last year, at least it’s here now, so what did we get with Wish You Were Here?
Wish You Were Here is, in a sense, both more and less what you expect given the background. It’s an album that dives into dark territory for sure, but it’s also an album that explores those dark territories from more raw, personal experiences with a more diverse sonic palette than one might expect. What this means is that it’s an album that feels like it’s reaching for a lot of different ideas and sounds without sticking the landing all the way. In other words, while there are some issues with Wish You Were Here, these are issues that will likely be smoothed out over time, making this a fine debut for Walker overall.
Lyrically, this album is undoubtedly stone-cold country, exploring heartache, depression and loneliness. What caught me off guard though was how far Walker was willing to take it though. The opener, “Canyon,” talks of Walker’s apprehensions about putting himself out there as an artist, meaning it comes with a sense of self-consciousness that you don’t often see in country.
“Trouble” comes with the interesting perspective of looking for trouble in three senses that all move in a linear pattern. The first part involves him looking for trouble as a fellow buddy he can drink with at the bar. The second part sees “trouble” shifting to the woman the narrator is trying to get over, and lastly trouble takes on the “it” pronoun, showcasing a constant pattern of lonely depression the narrator adopts night after night.
On paper, the characters (or just Walker himself) are not just lonely, but rather at the bottom of the barrel with no cares with where they go from there, showcasing the deepest of spirals. Sometimes it gets more personal like on “Keep” or “Fondly,” and sometimes it’s told from other perspectives. The downright excellent, “Working Girl” sees Walker observing from afar a woman who’s had to work since she was 13 because there were no other options. Her family resorted to their own vices and internally destroyed themselves, leaving her to carry the weight. It showcases a very complex dynamic that feels real even though we hope to never meet someone like that. There’s also the trucking song, “Lot Lizard” playing very much in the same lyrical vein as Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.”
Sadly, Wish You Were Here doesn’t end on the happiest of notes either. “Last Call” is an incredibly fascinating philosophical look at a simple bar hook-up that’s more metaphorical than anything else. By this point, Walker is alright leaving the bar with this woman who’s just as down as he is. They know there’s nothing left for them and that they don’t really care for each other, but just having someone to hold onto at least keeps them going for a little while longer. It paints neither character in a favorable light, and yet it’s a frankly stark look at the deepest throes of depression.
Now, if I were to criticize any part of the writing of this album, it’d be that certain songs feel a tad underwritten in spots. “Canyon” finds Walker admitting his fear of being judged by the general public as a music artist. The second verse finds him admitting that he hasn’t always been there to comfort his own friends with their troubles, leaving him to wallow in his fear without any help or just simply someone to lean on. It’s an interesting angle to tackle the song from, but it also ends shortly after that, and the sad part is it ends when it begins to get really good.
“Fondly” is another example of this, as it’s never really known who the subject of Walker’s song is. He seems to be addressing a dead parent in one line (“you left me with so much responsibility”), but the song overall seems to reference a spouse who left him long ago. It’s a confusing song all around. “Pale Hands” is another song that could have benefited from an extra verse to drive everything home. Thankfully, these are all problems that will likely smooth themselves out over time with more experience.
On the note of foundation with this album though, while everything is solid on paper, when it comes to the execution, the album doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be. To call it scattershot would be undermining it. “Canyon” has an atmospheric country folk vibe to it with the softer acoustics and spacier dynamics. Meanwhile “Trouble” and “Last Call” are built for the honky-tonks, especially the former track with its barroom piano. Other times though, the album catches you off guard.
Sometimes it’s in a good way. The minor acoustic strums on “Working Girl” along with the fuzzier electric guitar later on help to sell the track’s darker emotions, and the soft, earthy banjo bolstering “Fondly” helps add a sense of warm reflectiveness to it.
Other times though you’ll get something like “Love Songs,” a pretty bitter track that’s set to a lively Tejano mix. Beyond being an odd fit, it’s not one of the better tracks lyrically, and while I don’t mind comparing something to the Mavericks, again, it’s just too odd of a fit for this album. “Lot Lizard” suffers from the same problems. It’s an ode from a trucker to his wife back home to hang on a little longer until he gets home to patch up the relationship, but the accordion backing it doesn’t exactly scream a traveler’s song, so to say.
As good as “Keep” is lyrically, it’s also odd that it’s a duet. The song could have explored both sides of the relationship (not far removed from “Whiskey Lullaby” honestly), but here, the woman acts more as an outside observer watching a man who’s at his absolute lowest, and it just feels like an odd, unneeded change of perspective for the song.
Lastly, there’s Walker himself as a vocalist. He’s good on a technical level, but there’s times that test his upper range that don’t work out as well like on “Lot Lizard.” But this also brings me to another nitpick I have that will also likely be smoothed out with more experience – his ability as an emotive performer.
At this point, Walker lacks the ability to really deliver the emotions present here with an incredible ton of weight. He’s able to sell what he’s singing, but between the arrangements and his delivery, you get the feeling that certain songs aren’t being brought to life the way they should.
That’s why I wish he’d go for more darker textures on future projects, because I get the feeling we’d get something great then. “Working Girl” is a glimpse at Walker at his full potential. Meanwhile, I do wish “Burn It” had a little less polish and a little more grit added to its scuzzy guitar line.
But despite all of that, the problems with Wish You Were Here ultimately lie in its execution, and it’s the type of ambitious execution that’s not uncommon to see on a debut album. In terms of the foundation, Walker’s writing is incredibly rock solid, going further with his songs than most country songs dare to do. His level of insight is commendable, and tracks like “Working Girl” and “Last Call” are downright excellent. I don’t think Wish You Were Here is the best work Walker is capable of producing, but it’s a solid first step on his artistic journey. Despite what he says on “Canyon,” he’s really got nothing to worry about.