The short version: I’ll freely admit that my most of my criticisms with ‘Country Squire’ are my issues alone, but this album also feels like a missed opportunity in certain respects.
- Favorite tracks: “Ever Lovin’ Hand,” “Peace Of Mind,” “Country Squire”
- Least favorite track: “House Fire”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: This is one of the reviews where the introduction to the actual discussion of the album really spells itself out.
With that said, there’s certainly enough interesting routes one could go when discussing the Tyler Childers phenomenon. First, regardless of personal taste in music, it’s hard not to respect an artist who cares about what “country” music means and how it’s portrayed to the larger world, especially in a year where more artists are looking to tear that meaning down. One could also discuss how Childers is carrying the country music flag for Kentucky that Sturgill Simpson has moved on from (I’m careful to use the word, “abandon,” however), even if the direct comparisons feel unfair in certain respects.
And while all that is well and good, I’ve admittedly always been frustrated with myself for not being as on board with Childers as others have, especially when he’s taken the country music world by storm. I don’t know what it was, but there was always something underwhelming with 2017’s Purgatory, whether it was in the finer production details or Childers himself, who, as a vocalist, is an acquired taste I have not yet acquired.
Sadly, the marketing behind his sophomore release, Country Squire, wasn’t giving me much hope either. For one, for an artist who’s got enough clout to sign to a major record label deal, Country Squire was mostly just a collection of older Childers songs one could find through live YouTube videos. Sure, it’s a tactic that Chris Stapleton has used to great effect, but it always seemed like the wrong move for an artist looking to move ahead to unearth a complete collection of songs people already know (in other words, at least throw one new song into the bunch, especially when there’s only nine tracks here!).
And then there were the two singles leading up to this project, with “House Fire” being an unflattering, messy song all around while “All Your’n” pulled from the same retro-soul catalog that other artists have pounded into the ground, at least in east Nashville. Sure, it’s a good sound, but an otherwise decent love song turned into something generic pretty quickly.
As for where that leaves Country Squire now that it’s released, it’s admittedly more and less than what I expected. On one hand, while this is more consistent that Purgatory, the production issues from “House Fire” carry over, and the album can’t help but feel a little one-dimensional in this area otherwise. The writing is fairly strong, but considering that’s what’s carrying most of the tracks here, it doesn’t connect as well as it could despite the arranged track sequencing. Most of this will be explained later in the album discussion, but for as much as I’d like to finally be on board with Childers, Country Squire isn’t offering enough reasons to go back to what is simply a decent, but not great album.
And the easiest place to start with why, again, is Childers as a vocalist. Beyond the comment of his tone being an acquired taste, he’s not a very expressive vocalist either. I admire the intensity of “House Fire,” but it’s a moment where he’s confusing raw passion for what sounds like anger instead – definitely not the kind of mood you want to set for that kind of song. And for a song like “Ever Lovin’ Hand” which practically lives for those one-liners, it was disappointing to hear his performance sound a bit straight-laced there as well.
Again, though, a lack of expression is what can make these tracks start to run together, which is where the comments on instrumentation and production come into play. For the most part, the tones on Country Squire are grimy, yet pristine enough to shine through where intended. The interweaving of brighter piano and fiddle lines help give the title track an air of optimism to it, and the jumpy acoustic groove of “Gemini” certainly fits Childers’s admission that he’s an oddball who can’t control himself.
Despite that, however, like the vocals, there’s a sonic cohesion to this album that’s almost too smooth. Part of this is Childers’s odd flow as a vocalist contributing to songs with no real discernible hooks to them, but for as good as Country Squire sounds, it’s also safe in other spots. For as somber of a picture as Childers paints on “Creeker,” the waltz cadence of the track gives it a gentle feel to it, and it’s a shame considering some more grittier production and darker tones could have helped flesh out that song better. For as much as “All Your’n” sounds like a generic throwaway cut, there’s something to be said for how huge it goes with its presentation, especially when it’s the one track here with anything close to a hook here.
That’s not to say the execution never sticks the landing, however. “Peace Of Mind” is played a little more downbeat, with even Childers’s vocal performance matching the air of sadness lingering over the track. And when you really dig into the dual internal battles between a husband who works his life away for his family and a wife who can’t help but wonder if she picked the right man, it’s a sorrowful situation that’s told well here.
Then, of course, there’s the lyricism, Childers’s best asset to many fans. The album starts strong with its title track, Childers’s optimistic ode to slowly build an empire for his family, and considering where he’s at now, it’s a sentiment that already feels earned. Of course, that doesn’t come without its trials and tribulations, including the strong urges he feels for his wife on the road, which leads into “Ever Lovin’ Hand,” one of the best odes to masturbation since Jackson Browne’s “Rosie.” Really, some of these innocuous references take on a way different approach, and kudos to Childers for handling it with class and humor without going too overboard with the topic.
With that said, “Ever Lovin’ Hand” sort of speaks toward the atmosphere of the album as a whole, in that, while I certainly think that’s a strong cut, Country Squire never is really able to find a consistent groove to it. “Bus Route” and “Gemini” are two tracks that feel a bit underdeveloped in their execution. With “Bus Route,” I understand the entire point is to show him coming of age with a woman, but considering the entire point of the song is just to see him get the deed done, it ends on an awkward note where it feels like it should speak to something further and just doesn’t. The same comment extends toward “Gemini,” a fascinating, but rushed, insight into Childers’s mindset. And on that note, if there’s a last note to be made about the album, it’d go toward the mixing, which often finds Childers buried too deep into the mix or, at the very least, too downbeat to sell the tune effectively. And if there’s obvious examples where that sticks out, “Gemini” and “House Fire” would be it.
Granted, Country Squire does boast a few good individual cuts in “Peace Of Mind” and “Ever Lovin’ Hand,” but nothing that screams as a true standout in any regard. And between the album artwork which signals a psychedelic experience the listener (thankfully) never receives and the two lead singles which couldn’t sound farther apart from each other, that leaves Country Squire on a confusing note. Ultimately, it’s an album that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and while I applaud Childers’s innocent creativity that goes into his work, it does tend to leave his projects feeling a bit underwhelming, and that’s not good for a major label debut album. Granted, this is still a likable project, and I’ll freely admit a lot of my issues with Childers’s music are mine alone. Furthermore, this certainly won’t be a sophomore slump for Childers given the attention this album has received already. With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this album doesn’t have a lot of staying power in the long run, and while I’m frustrated I’m not on board with Childers yet, I have to work with what I have, and that’s a decent, but not great album.