American Soul is a decent listen that feels less adventurous and more predictable than Aaron Watson’s most recent efforts.
I feel like I’ve underrated Aaron Watson and given him way too much credit at the same time.
Granted, I’ll always hold a fondness for 2015’s The Underdog, which, in the wake of former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton’s infamous radio comments, provided a real gateway for me into independent country music. I remember getting pumped by how several independent acts outsold generic, mainstream B-listers in album sales that year, enough to where it provided bigger opportunities for some, like Watson himself. But I also know a part of that spurred from a naivety within me, and that even though Watson finally earned mainstream recognition, his radio success didn’t quite reflect that same grassroots passion.
But considering that Watson always made very safe, easygoing neotraditional country music that had its time and place, I was more surprised at the artistic growth made along the way anyway. I still hold 2017’s Vaquero as his best album – with 2019’s Red Bandana not far behind – because he took more of a risk with the melodic and instrumental compositions and provided an anthemtic swell that seemed to come out of nowhere. And with songs like “Clear Isabel” and “The Ghost of Guy Clark,” he was daring to push even further with his style and lyrical focus, and I was all for it.
With that said, I’m wasn’t surprised to hear that his newest effort aimed to be a more simplistic offering. He’s apparently got three albums slated for release this year, and while I’m a bit nervous as to how all of that will turn out, I also get stepping back and returning to a familiar sound, especially when I know some longtime fans were turned off by the same two aforementioned projects I loved, and when that sort of grand, sweeping swell feels all for naught when there’s no touring opportunities to properly showcase it live.
Now, I don’t want to call American Soul a bad album. It’s straightforward, easily enjoyable neotraditional country music that does exactly what it sets out to do. But as someone who appreciated the risks Watson had taken with his most recent efforts, I’m a little disappointed with this, I’ll admit. It’s fine, but as the very first album I’m reviewing in 2021, I don’t see it sticking with me for the long haul, especially if the rumors are true and Watson really does have three albums set to go this year.
Again, though, I do get this album to an extent. American Soul is Watson’s way of addressing the cultural climate at large – though it’s worth noting this album was written before the pandemic – and I do get the low-key, subtler focus of leaning into it because of that. The blasts of fiddle still carry plenty of energy against well-mixed pedal steel, solid, meaty electric guitar melodies, and even a great little bass groove driving “Out Of My Misery.” It’s not opting for the same grandiose swell as before, but there’s a place for this simpler sound.
With that said, the actual compositions feel oddly safe and stiff, almost to a fault. Solid, but rarely remarkable, and on a short album like this, you do hope for something that’ll stick with you. Now, I’ll gladly take the majority of this album’s sound over what gets played on country radio, and while there are a few moments that feel awkwardly placed against Watson’s timbre in the soul-leaning “Boots” and “Stay” and the awkwardly placed drum machine opening “Dog Tags,” the melodies keep this mostly grounded and enjoyable. I like the liquid, atmospheric touches riding off the acoustics and subtle touches of piano and pedal steel on “Whisper My Name” for what’s probably my favorite track here, and there’s a solid enough kick to “Silverado Saturday Night” and the smolder of the solo on “Out Of My Misery.” But again, they – as well as the hooks – feel less distinct for Watson across the board, and charisma will only take him so far with lackluster material.
Which, on that note, is a good segue into Watson himself. He’s a likable enough singer with a lot of earnest passion behind his performances, and while his strait-laced tone can often stiffen his charisma, he’s often a good fit for his material, especially when he plays it simple. But his guarded demeanor also makes his romantic sentiment in “Boots” feel more than a little forced, and he pretty much butchers the rapid-fire flow of “Stay” that then transitions into his upper register, which is less effective. When he just lets good melodies and compositions settle in, like he does on “Best Friend,” “Whisper My Name,” and “Out Of My Misery,” the rest usually falls in place where it needs to. And even if I’m not wild about some of the more direct, on-the-nose tracks in “Long Live Cowboys,” the title track, “Touchdown Town” or “Dog Tags,” I’ve never doubted Watson’s sincerity; it’s always obvious he believes what he’s selling.
But that opens up a discussion of lyrics and themes, which is also a bit of a mixed bag. There’s no obvious duds, and I do appreciate the shorter, grounded focus of drilling into the American core and approaching some needed conversations. The problem is, it’s obvious when Watson is trying way too hard to sell it. There’s tracks about football, the military, and the 4th of July because it’s the good ol’ American way, and those tracks that directly reference those sentiments can’t help but feel like generic, vague sketches of archetypes in an attempt to force a connection, when, again, I’d argue that simple works best here. Sure, “Best Friend” is a fairly predictable song about a dying dog, but there’s more weight to the actual story told, in which the dog, Bandit (and just giving these characters names goes a long way, too), consoles its master through a breakup, only for that ex-significant other to be the one offering comfort when Bandit dies. Even after just hearing Tim McGraw’s “Doggone” and Chris Stapleton’s “Maggie’s Song” last year, what can I say? It worked for me.
Sadly, I can’t say that about the rest of this album, where the intent and execution are both admirable, but only offer a surface-level analysis at best, too, making the album feel like a missed opportunity for something bigger and better. Even the best songs here feel like they’re treading familiar ground for Watson, though I guess I’m glad to have a version of “Outta Style” I finally like with “Whisper My Name.” It’s a return to form sonically, and as a project released early on in the year, it’s decent enough. So while I can see longtime fans gravitating toward it, I did want more from it. Let’s hope that the second or third time is the charm this year.
- Favorite tracks: “Whisper My Name,” “Best Friend,” “Out Of My Misery”
- Least favorite track: “Stay”