Coming off the heavier Songs For The Saints from 2018, Here And Now is Kenny Chesney’s return to lightweight, breezy material that doesn’t resonate nearly as much as Chesney thinks it does right now.
For as much as the off time between artistic releases can provide some new conversational piece or course of direction for an artist, Kenny Chesney’s transition from Songs From The Saints went mostly as expected. It was an album influenced by destruction and deliberately meant to reflect on that – of course one would want to eventually move on from it. Yet for Chesney, the album itself felt like a good change of pace: He went beyond the pure escapism of his usual material for something with deeper emotional stakes, something which he’s mostly tried to avoid throughout his career outside of a few scattered singles like “There Goes My Life” or “Don’t Blink.” And considering he had the good grace to enlist heavyweight writers like Liz Rose, Travis Meadows and John Baumann for that project, I can confidently say it was Chesney’s best project to date.
Again, though, I knew it would be an isolated moment; not only because of the making of the album, but also because country radio wasn’t kind to “Better Boat” in the slightest. And for the hardcore fans, again, Chesney’s brand of lightweight escapism didn’t really fit that project, hence why he had a new lead single out with “Tip Of My Tongue” before that album was even a year old. With it and current single (and title track to his newest album) “Here And Now,” it was pretty clear Chesney was getting back to what his fans wanted.
This, of course, means that Here And Now is a Chesney project through and through – devoted to keeping that breezy, good time tone, yet also offering a bit more on the edge that deserves a deeper scrutiny, both good and bad. Yes, it’s easy to point to how the title track is incredibly untimely for this current situation, but when weighted outside of that context, it’s a mostly above average Chesney album that has more highlights than expected but also a few duds.
Chesney himself has never struck me as a notable performer with a lot of charisma, and though his emotional range is also fairly lacking, it’s got enough of a broad expressiveness to work for his particular material. Unlike his last album, these songs often don’t require a huge emotional investment, though I was surprised at how much deserved stoicism he displayed on “You Don’t Get To.”
Right away from the opening track “We Do,” though, it’s clear this album is intended for the fans, enough to where it feels pandering with the all of the pirate iconography that stopped making sense a long time ago for him, but is still generally passable. With that said, “passable” is generally how I’d describe most of this album. Chesney and his writers have always had a good sense for setting a scene for his material, but the actual details never really fluctuate. Granted, that can work really well sometimes; “Everyone She Knows” sets up a fairly common archetype of someone stuck between having to grow up and yet feeling pressured to go all in on every aspect of that process, including getting married and having kids when it’s not the right time for this character. There’s a seediness to the framing that still rings as mature despite its main theme, and because it doesn’t frame this particular woman as the perfect person who has it all together, it makes the track fairly relatable. The same can be said for “You Don’t Get To,” where the little details of what turned this relationship sour unfurl line by line, and given that it paints that full picture, it’s understandable when he doesn’t have the patience to want to try again with this woman.
And though they’re good, those two tracks feel oddly out of place here, digging a bit deeper and offering something beyond an ideal scenario (though one could certainly argue the former track is about finding one’s own happiness). A track like “Wasted,” on the other hand, feels more in line with what one would expect from Chesney – a breezy, slightly preachy ode to just do what you want to do and not focus on the bad elements in life … which would be all right if we, too, were all millionaires who could afford to blow through huge chunks of money like the character here. It’s escapism for the sake of, which rarely connects on a deeper level and has been my main criticism of Chesney projects for years. The same can be said for “Happy Does” and “Beautiful World,” both of which are overall inoffensive, but still mangle the difference between confidence and optimism in the face of adversity and casually just brushing it off without any real acknowledgment.
To be fair, there aren’t as many moments like that as one would expect. Even a beautiful track like “Guys Named Captain” acknowledges the happy-go-lucky pirate attitude is mostly an act to mask a deeper part of themselves. If anything, it’s a more mature offering from Chesney, though when a lack of deeper details still lingers, it doesn’t make certain songs much better. Kudos to you for acknowledging your faults on “Someone To Fix,” but when the subtext suggests this woman is still with you in spite of those flaws, I’m just left wondering why (especially when this just feels like Chesney’s take on “boyfriend country,” and it’s not a good fit).
Plus, it’s good that Here And Now takes more production notes from Songs From The Saints than it does from his misfire on Cosmic Hallelujah, though the odd, echoed fragments of “Tip Of My Tongue” still feel incredibly jarring, especially in the context of this album. The drums are breezy and the guitars have a surprising amount of groove and swagger otherwise, and even if tracks like “We Do” and “Heartbreakers” are shallow cuts just meant to fuel his live show, they’re not half bad. It’s still a bit more polished than I’d otherwise prefer, but I did enjoy the darker, emptier touches on “You Don’t Get To” to highlight that bitterness, even if I wouldn’t call any of these melody lines particularly memorable or distinct. But the soft piano touches add a delicacy to “Guys Named Captain” that’s fairly potent, and “Happy Does” features a sunnier, lightweight vibe that works well for it.
All of this leaves me in a weird place with this album. It’s still better than most of his 2010s releases, yet at the same time it’s a somewhat expected letdown from Songs From The Saints that reminds me most of the transition from the 2013 experimental reggae-country fusion of Life On A Rock into the safer The Big Revival the following year. With that said – it’s a Kenny Chesney album, so one knows what to expect at this point. With a few genuine highlights and a fairly agreeable tone otherwise, Here And Now is at least another (albeit smaller) step in the right direction for Chesney.
(Light to decent 6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “You Don’t Get To,” “Guys Named Captain,” “Everyone She Knows,” “Happy Does”
- Least favorite track: “Here And Now”