Cam finally makes it to the “other side” with her sophomore album, but the effort can’t help but feel like an inconsistent, safe return for her.
It’s worth examining how we got here, and why Cam’s sophomore album has taken five years to finally be released.
Of course, with Cam, all conversations eventually circle back around “Burning House,” and how, in the summer of 2015, a slow acoustic ballad about a dying love made it to the top five of the country airplay charts – at a time when bro-country still somewhat dominated the airwaves, for the record. Now, it benefited from the controversial, inconsistent iHeartRadio “On The Verge” program, known for pushing artificial hits out of songs that – more often than not – didn’t deserve that status … yet “Burning House” was a strong exception. It was a legitimate hit that not only garnered attention from Sony Music’s Doug Morris, prompting him to sign Cam to a record deal with Arista Nashville, but also was a legitimate hit that sold and performed well otherwise, too.
And even with those factors in mind, it’s still baffling as to how it succeeded at country radio, where logic gets thrown completely out of the window. Less surprising was the aftermath, namely in how follow-up singles in “Mayday” and “Diane” floundered at radio – the latter of which made this album and reflects the larger issues with Cam’s handling that I haven’t even started addressing yet.
Which is to say that, while it’s easy to point the blame at country radio, we can’t forget Arista Nashville, either. Where country radio fails, critical buzz and a grassroots fan base can sometimes work to provide alternative avenues to success … which is why the release of her debut album, Untamed, in December of that year felt like the absolute worst choice for her specifically, namely because it’s when year-end lists get published, charts slow down and people just don’t care about new releases in general until the new year. Again, she returned with “Diane” in 2017, but label complications only furthered a delay for more new music, and by 2018, she moved to Sony’s all-genre RCA Records out of New York, only signing a deal with Triple Tigers this year to promote songs to country radio once again.
Really, the switch isn’t that surprising when reviewing Cam’s operations surrounding her debut album, in which Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker handled production and songwriting alongside her, the latter known for his work with Kanye West, Natalia Kills, fun., Beyonce, and – oh, look, speaking of 2015 – Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.” It’d be easy to say that Cam was always a step removed from Nashville, if we’re playing devil’s advocate.
But moving away from a general discussion and more specifically to the music itself, that argument would only hold water if the music sounded far removed from the country music genre, which it didn’t. Sure, it was percussion-heavy, but it was of a more organic variety and favored strong layering and grooves above all else, all without suffocating the otherwise pretty good melodies. I wouldn’t exactly say it favored strong songwriting, but if we’re referring to 2010s country music again, it wasn’t that far-fetched compared to what you’d hear on the radio – and that still rings true.
And thus far, this story should unfortunately sound eerily similar to another strong female artist completely failed by the country music industry – Kacey Musgraves. Again, I’d argue Musgraves is the stronger writer, but objectively, she wasn’t set up to fail in the same way Cam was for greater success. Then, in the ever-growing example of how mainstream country radio is no longer the only avenue for success, their stories intertwined. Musgraves opened for Harry Styles on tour in the summer of 2017; Cam opened for Sam Smith in the summer of 2018, and was a songwriter listed for his album, The Thrill of It All. Plus, she worked with Styles for her sophomore project (which I swear we’re going to discuss before, oh, 2021 or so). And I know we’re entering dangerous territory here – that, being a study of how men helped women succeed in the industry, but it goes far beyond that, even if it’s hard to ignore that systemic elephant in the room (another conversation to address, for sure). It’s more about finding a creative method of sidestepping radio for greater success and finding an entirely new audience that, hey, just might like country music after all.
As for where we are now … well, not much has changed. Ghosts and unfortunate tales from Cam and Musgraves’ stories follow female artists today. Musgraves is a Grammy winner who, ultimately, had the last laugh and is now flirting with spacey, dream pop textures. For Cam, while she and her team are once again pushing singles to country radio, it’s going about as well as one would expect, and I can argue that, while she’s on a new label, the specific release date and following week is going to work against her again. And while she’s working with the same team that helped craft her debut, it’s no surprise she also brought on board the aforementioned Smith and Styles, Jack Antonoff – speaking of producers who work with country acts utterly failed by the industry – and the late Avicii for something reportedly less country-inspired. But I also see writing credits from Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby, and since this preamble is already longer than some of my reviews, how does The Otherside measure up anyway?
It’s strange. For as much as The Otherside is Cam’s attempt to break free of any genre expectations and create something more creatively adventurous, it lacks the overall drive and spirit that made Untamed such a refreshing, if inconsistent listen back in 2015. I wouldn’t call it a step back across the board, but it is lacking a distinctive energy. Granted, that may sound surprising if you read my overlong preamble, but the point of that – aside from taking a chance to call out the industry’s inherent misogyny – was to establish that I want Cam and this album to succeed, even if my praise is a bit more cautious this time around.
Now, on a fundamental level, The Otherside is very much playing to the same percussion-heavy sound that characterized her debut. As stated before, though, while that’s normally a deterrent for most releases – given the sanitized, blatant Nashville production – it works here because of a strong focus on layering and groove, and an organic, melodic framework with the thicker acoustics and riffs. The windswept rush and adrenaline pump of the tension driving the galloping percussion on “Diane” has only grown on me over the years, and I like the similar, more understated effect it carries on “Redwood Tree” to denote the constant speed at which we move and take certain moments in life for granted. The orchestral swell behind “Like a Movie” might be a bit on-the-nose, but it’s a really nice touch nonetheless.
There’s two problems with that approach overall, though, that, while noticeable on her debut, are a bit more amplified here: For one, it shifts the focus away from instrumental subtlety and while it doesn’t necessarily suffocate the melodies, it doesn’t do much to highlight them, either. The bigger problem is that not a lot of these tracks have the needed space to breathe naturally – even the highlights – and that lack of subtlety is a further hindrance when digging into the content itself. There’s nothing here amping up the stakes like “Runaway Train” from Untamed, nor are there a lot of moments aiming for upbeat flair or sharper hooks like “Hungover on Heartache.” There’s “Classic,” but that really just highlights how Cam, while possessing a bubbly energy and plenty of charisma, isn’t really a distinctive performer, so she isn’t able to rise above some of the lyrical clichés used to drive the track.
Really, too, for as many collaborators brought on board here, it’s a surprisingly consistent listen, but almost to the point of blending together a bit too well, or not going far enough with the experimentation. I mean, the Avicii-inspired, spacey synthetic elements blended in on the title track sound fairly decent and support the melody well enough, but I wouldn’t say they stand out in the mix.
That reflects a bigger problem with the album, though, namely in how inconsistent a lot of the actual tonal choices sound. This is an overall more mature record that opts for the same deeper emotional stakes as, say, “Burning House” and “Village,” but with tracks like “Forgetting You” and “What Goodbye Means,” the backbeats could have been pitched out entirely and the songs would have likely sounded better for it or landed with more impact. And that’s before mentioning the hazier reverb that swamps “Till There’s Nothing Left” to an overbearing effect.
And that’d be forgivable if the content was more fleshed out, but I’d say this is the main area where Cam still struggles to stand out from the crowd. I appreciate the choice to tackle some tougher themes in the divorce-fueled “What Goodbye Means,” watching an ex-lover move on in “Happier For You” and especially being the “other woman” having the guts to confront the wife in an awkward situation on “Diane,” but more often than not, I find the tracks lack the more complex details to nail a sharper emotive core or just come with questionable framing in general. Again, take “Happier For You,” which finds a woman doing her best to hold it together as she accepts that an ex-lover has moved on … only she’s trying to do it as his wedding, and since he’s the one who broke it off, he looks like a braying jackass for having the gall to invite her anyway. Or take the title track, where an ex-lover comes crawling back and Cam’s character is the one with the last laugh … only the entire ordeal just sounds sort of cold and toxic in its framing and just stops at the gloating. Again, a lack of sharper focus really holds this album back, which is a real shame when they’re close to being great.
With that said, there are a lot of genuine highlights, especially toward the back half. “Like a Movie” is a simple love song, but it carries the sort of bright energy that really elevates the lyric, all while acknowledging that the fairytale adventure these two are having is more of a cathartic release off of some bitter breakups; the emotional swell feels earned here. “What Goodbye Means” is particularly devastating in framing how much this character wants to save her marriage, even if it means taking responsibility for her own actions in what went wrong and working toward fixing them. And that same maturity colors “Diane,” where even though the “other woman” was caught by surprise just as the wife was, she’s the one owning up to her unknown mistakes even when she really doesn’t and shouldn’t have to, at least not alone. But while I wouldn’t say there’s a track here that hits with the same impact as the aforementioned “Burning House” or “Village,” “Girl Like Me” comes close, a sparse piano ballad that lets the natural emotion simmer so much better than similar tracks here. It speaks excellently to the strange insecurities that both younger and older woman experience as they maneuver through tougher relationships like the ones described here.
It’s an excellent way to end the album, though I will say this effort is a bit more quaint overall than it should be, and mostly suffers from inconsistent tonal choices and weak writing in spots. It feels like a scattershot sophomore album that’s been too long overdue, rather than an overall slump. And again, while it’s more thought-provoking than most of what you’ll hear on a country radio station, I’d struggle to call it one of best releases of the year in general. It’s nice to finally have Cam back, but this does scan as an underwhelming release.
- Favorite tracks: “Girl Like Me,” “Diane,” “Like a Movie,” “What Goodbye Means,” “Redwood Tree”
- Least favorite track: “Till There’s Nothing Left”