All SOUTHSIDE does is confirm that Sam Hunt should have extended his musical hiatus
Sam Hunt is an enigma.
Granted, I’m talking about Hunt the artist, who, after breaking through with the hugely successful Montevallo, disappeared rather than capitalized on his momentum. Some of the reasons for his extended musical hiatus have to do with his career, and others don’t. Either way, aside from a few standalone singles here and there (all of which show up on his newest album, SOUTHSIDE), Hunt has eschewed the standard path of stardom.
Which, in an age of constant news and updates, is refreshing, and certainly makes Hunt a more interesting person than he is an artist; but it is strange nonetheless. After all, “Body Like A Backroad” dominated 2017 while “Downtown’s Dead” barely made a dent in 2018, and though “Kinfolks” gave a more consistent start for his sophomore album, Hunt’s mixed messaging of being done with music (until he wasn’t) and where he was taking his sound certainly didn’t bode well for anything interesting or inspired.
But SOUTHSIDE is here; arguably at the worst time, but, given that the main focus for Hunt’s constant setbacks was finding a balance between his career and marriage, it’s not surprising that this album isn’t aiming to be as edgy as his debut; instead settling for a weird mix between low-key R&B and thin attempts at country music. It’s an odd listen, really, packed together with those older aforementioned singles, current singles and new songs that makes for a consistent listen, but not one that carries any real weight behind its sentiments, outside of a few moments.
Granted, that’s a statement that could be levied at Hunt’s debut album and general style, too. While critics and fans argue over whether he’s country or pop, the real crime is that his instrumentation and production is a total mess. Blending synthetic elements with country instrumentation is hardly controversial, nor is it particularly new; artists have typically pulled it off by using ample steel guitar for a bigger, atmospheric, expansive mix. At best, a moment like “2016” gives a fantastic start to this project, where the acoustic foundation takes prominence and the pedal steel grants that atmosphere while Hunt delivers what is handily his best performance yet. It’s not that it’s a straightforward country track that makes it good; it’s that the production actually feels consistent for once.
But it’s all downhill from there.
Honestly, though, that’s actually more of a note on the content than anything else. Both “2016” and closing track “Drinkin’ Too Much” aim to frame the album as Hunt’s journey to winning back wife Hannah Lee Fowler. A noble sentiment, but one undercut by Hunt’s own personality and gutless writing that, sadly, passes for good these days. Take those two aforementioned tracks, for instance, where the years and distance between some of the songs on this album really shows. To give credit, there’s a real emotional pathos and regret to “2016” that Hunt’s other material lacks, and he’s willing to show real consequences for his actions. But then there’s “Drinkin’ Too Much,” which continues to be an utterly ghastly track reeking of entitlement. Sure, the plan for that song worked and Fowler plays piano on it (which is just weird), but it doesn’t stop the song from having some serious problems with its framing. He apologizes for outing her personal information, yet says her name later on anyway, and says he respects her privacy but spends the entire time being unable to leave her alone – from guilt-tripping her by offering to pay her student loans to making presumptuous statements about her crying in the bathtub and then ending it by saying, “I know there ain’t no way we’re through,” it’s arrogant in tone and utterly miserable otherwise.
That’s not to mention, too, that the romantic sentiments equate to anything from comparing her body to a road likely in poor repair and riddled with cracks and potholes on “Body Like A Backroad” to simply meeting her on “Kinfolks” and outright planning the wedding right then and there.
Of course, those are all moments that have sucked for a while – years, in some cases. What’s most surprising about the new material is that it’s surprisingly … boilerplate, which isn’t something I ever expected to say about Hunt’s material, for better or worse. “Young Once” is a generic ode to nostalgia complete with lines about “doing things in the wheat fields,” which, among so many other reasons, is why the “hey, Jesus!” moment on “Sinning With You” feels incredibly disingenuous and merely coasting on vague religious platitudes to try and strengthen a weak hook. Even when he samples Webb Pierce’s “There Stands The Glass” on “Hard To Forget,” it’s not so much outrageous as it is confusing, adding what is probably the only decent melodic foundation Hunt has ever had, but also adding an oddly chipper tone to what is supposed to be a song where he’s haunted by memories of an old flame (and with sing-along backing vocalists toward the end, for whatever reason).
Then, it’s tracks like “That Ain’t Beautiful” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” that show Hunt’s other problem – his insistence on channeling Drake with his slow, half-talking/half-singing delivery means he rarely comes across with any distinctive presence, and given how slow the former track drags on, it’s like listening to a boring podcast more than a song. It’s not that he lacks a presence, mind you, it’s just that when he does have one, it’s often unlikable and arrogant. “Let It Down,” for example, is a half-baked attempt at blending R&B elements with a song tilting melodically toward bluegrass hoedown, but it’s telling that, while she wants to end the relationship and move on, he insists that they just need one more night and that he’ll save it with his mind-melting charisma and charm; I don’t buy it.
Again, to give credit, when Hunt just picks a distinct lane, he’s not bad. I already mentioned “2016,” but even “Downtown’s Dead” gets it halfway right with the warped spacious elements opting for atmosphere to signify the empty feeling he gets from trying to live the night life – it’s a shame it was Hunt’s only track to not be a hit.
On that note, though, another problem with Hunt’s sound is a pure lack of foundation. Part of it is the abuse of vocal production, where the multi-tracking is often thin, the synthetic production is blatant and unflattering for him, and none of the layering gives him any dramatic swell or power. And though he can rapidly switch between rapping and singing and outright talking fairly quickly, the transitions often feel clunky and stilted. And when none of the actual instrumental tones have any sense of power or groove to back them, it leads to an album with no driving power or potent melody to define a larger-sounding mix. He’ll bring in fake, skeletal percussion lines, but nothing that helps define any sort of potent groove; and sure, Hunt’s attempt at sounding more country means that there’s shades of fiddle, pedal steel and banjo here and there, but only rarely are they ever doing anything interesting in the mix; more often than not they’re just clashing against the synthetic elements to contribute to a generic wall of sound.
In short, time has made SOUTHSIDE feel oddly disjointed. There’s a thematic arc present, but not a particularly good one, and while the big hits from this album are duly noted, the remaining material scans as oddly flaccid and weak. It’s an album that combines the sleaze of bad R&B with the posturing of bad modern country, and while country radio will no doubt reward him for that, I have to wonder how much is left in him beyond those big hits here.
- Favorite tracks: “2016,” “Downtown’s Dead”
- Least favorite tracks: “Drinkin’ Too Much,” “Body Like A Backroad,” “Let It Down,” “Sinning With You”