I’m perplexed by Morgan Wallen’s success.
And, condescending as I know that sounds, I don’t mean that as a slight against him. It’s the same way I’m still trying to figure out Luke Combs’ rise, from an objective standpoint, that is. I mean, with Combs, I kind of get it. He dresses the part of a down-home country boy who markets himself as a bit more authentic – a bit more “real.” Wallen, too, to an extent, with the embrace of the mullet, of all things, fashionable in the ‘90s and likely to appeal to those looking for something a little more relatable and real, even given how goofy it all is. Both artists have also marketed themselves well across social media platforms, which is a bit rarer for country artists to embrace, given how the genre has always been behind the ball in the technological department. I think when I say I’m perplexed, it’s not so much a confusion as to how it happened, but how quickly it happened and how these two arguably became mainstream country music’s biggest two current A-list acts in such a quick time. I don’t think anyone expected what would happen in, say, 2017, when Combs released his major label debut, or when Wallen did the same just one year later.
Of course, that’s more of a discussion of an appeal through imaging. As far as the music is concerned, with Combs, that’s easy to answer. There’s a middle-of-the-road accessibility that appeals to both bro-country fans and those who’ve anticipated the slight neotraditional revival percolating around Nashville’s edges over the past few years, where that balance just hadn’t been achieved before. I’d argue the same for Wallen, albeit to lesser, more complicated extent. He blew up off a Florida Georgia Line collaboration in “Up Down,” but has also went viral off of fairly organic material with “7 Summers” and his take on Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” It’s encouraging to see there’s an audience that will still accept that sort of material with a surprising amount of mass appeal, honestly.
Now, not a lot of it has been for me, and given that I wasn’t wild about his record label using his tabloid fodder-filled 2020 to market his newest double album as “edgy” or “outlaw,” I can’t say I had high expectations for his newest material. But I also know there’s a part of me that needs to leave those preconceived expectations at the door and give everything a fair chance, even something as bloated as a 30-song project.
This is a rare instance where I don’t think having preconceived expectations matters anyway, because Dangerous is the sort of album that both surpasses and just doesn’t meet them. Now, it’s certainly not a grand artistic statement, and I can’t say I expected anything other than a big singles-driven project, especially when the majority of the lead singles are bundled at the end of the first half. But there’s more to say about Dangerous than I ever could have imagined, and while that offers both good and bad talking points, it’s far more interesting than I ever expected it would be.
Again, too, I circle back to the Luke Combs comparisons in the approach, namely in how this adapts the same strategy of being an overlong project to game streaming numbers … just, you know, to an even larger extent. And though it’s all meant to be taken in as one project, I’m more inclined to talk about each half on its own merit. There’s a night-and-day difference in approach on both sides, where the first half is a little darker, moodier, and lonelier while the second half embodies pretty much all of Wallen’s worst traits, both from a musical and personal standpoint. I’ll be blunt, the first half of the record offers some genuinely compelling moments I didn’t see coming and might even show some artistic growth for Wallen. Not great, but decent enough to show potential for future directions. The second half, however, is utterly terrible, and likely to be in contention as one of the worst offerings of the year, marred by sloppy songwriting, bad production, and a meat-headed swagger that grew stale long ago. In other words, there’s a lot to say.
So let’s start with Wallen himself, who isn’t a great singer and is only barely serviceable on the album’s best moments. With that said, whereas some of the pre-release tracks showcased a vocalist who sounded haggard and fried – and not in a way that enhances the material – it does compliment some of the surprisingly darker moments in the first half, especially the ones where he’s alone and left behind to stew in his misery. Which, granted, I wish was emphasized more in the actual writing and presentation – we’ll get to that eventually – but I do hear a singer with, at least, a certain amount of conviction in his delivery, which counts for this material. I think what caught me off guard in that department was “More Surprised Than Me,” where he knows he doesn’t fit in with his significant other’s social circle and has to confront that reality and a part of himself that goes beyond an argument of class, and it’s a surprisingly earnest moment that works.
But if I’m looking for the easy criticism, it’s a lack of subtlety, emphasized most in the aforementioned Jason Isbell cover of “Cover Me Up” that lacks the painstaking, raw, honest detail that made his version so compelling. Or take the duets, where Ben Burgess does most of the heavy lifting on “Outlaw” – which didn’t need to be a duet anyway – or “Only Thing That’s Gone” with Chris Stapleton, where the chemistry just isn’t really there and it’s obvious how much better Stapleton handles it.
Of course, that lack of subtlety is mostly evident in the instrumentation and production, where Joey Moi has made surprising headway, but isn’t there yet. Again, however, if I’m owning up to my own biases, I did expect this to be far worse, and it’s not. The album opens right away with “Sand in My Boots,” which rides off a surprising amount of warmth in its understated piano line and may just provide one of the best moments on either disc, next to “Wonderin’ ‘Bout the Wind” and “Quittin’ Time.” And there’s a good amount of presence in the hazier, atmospheric touches of “Neon Eyes” to keep the darker mystery in that song alluring, as well as in the gentle, swaying interplay of the firm acoustics and pedal steel on “Whiskey’d My Way.” The same goes for “More Surprised Than Me,” where the sandier touches and minor tones give that song a darker feel that works for the content, or “Wonderin’ ‘Bout The Wind,” where the same darker mix adds a bit of sad mystique to a woman who constantly vanishes and reappears in someone’s life. Even the breezier acoustics rattling off the bass on “7 Summers” helped that song grow on me more than I expected. And if “Cover Me Up” has anything better than the original, it’s a good mix of subtle mandolin and pedal steel to add more flavor, even if it does make the track a bit too bright to properly convey the lyrical sentiment.
Which is to say that it’s an inconsistent listen, really. And it’s evident right away when “Sand in My Boots” rolls into the oily, droopy, unflattering synthetic tones of “Wasted on You” against a slicker vocal delivery that Wallen is incapable of pulling off effectively. And I can’t tell if “Somebody’s Problem” is supposed to be the boyfriend/bro-country fusion that literally no one asked for off of the smug content and glistening, gentler acoustics. Plus, while the production often nails the darker turns more than I expected, sometimes it does it by muddying up the guitar tones, like on “865,” or especially “Warning” with those clunkily-mixed trap snares, and it’s not as convincing as the moments that excel off of less.
But if there’s a conversation here that’s even more complex, it’s in the writing, where the personal aspects of Wallen’s actions over the past year are explored to an extent, but not with a lot of actual depth. Actually, no, I can’t say that. He’s a detailed writer, but his details can often backfire against him by framing him as unlikable, which is not how you want to draw sympathy from listeners. I like dark and lonely to a fault, but not when it’s utterly miserable on “Wasted on You,” which feels whiny and never once considers his ex-significant other’s perspective in their respective downward spirals, or is framed through a misogynistic lens of a girl bound to be “somebody’s problem” and little more on that song. On that note, there’s also “Your Bartender,” which is framed as his wish to act as “her bartender” and influence her decision-making to stay with him, and, oh boy, I have some questions about some of the implications there, only further emphasized by the guilt-tripping rampant throughout “More Than My Hometown.” And the only moment to get “personal” here – on this half, that is – is “Warning,” which feels oddly rushed and muffled in its actual production and feels oddly abrupt and nondescript because of it, almost purposefully to avoid deeper “drama.”
Where the album works, again, is when it’s a bit more honest in framing the actual position Wallen may find himself in at points, like how “Neon Eyes” comes with an admittance that he’s not cut out for actually loving someone but would like to get there, or how even the comfort he finds on “Whiskey’d My Way” is really just a vice. I don’t even mind anger when it’s framed a little better, like how “Wonderin’ ‘Bout the Wind” finds him on the heartbreaking end of that “rambling man” situation as he wishes for further stability from his significant other and doesn’t find it. If more of those complex emotions had been explored this way, I would have been more impressed than just finding it a surprisingly decent effort.
And it’s a shame that most of the praise ends here, because we’re heading into the other half of this discussion.
Now, on a foundational level, I don’t have much else to add. Moi’s production is considerably worse in the overmixed percussion lines, the blaring, overdone guitar tones, and the same muddled tones that hampered the worst moments on the first half. Which, I suppose, makes sense, given it’s trying to mostly conjure up ghosts of bro-country past and the sound that went with them. And I won’t mince words, any good will that carried over from that first half fades away quickly here, where it’s clear that no one bothered to care about properly sequencing this, and where the same vices and demons Wallen explores on the first half are damn-near glorified here. Granted, given the co-writers, I’m not surprised – hello again, HARDY – but if there’s any proof needed that this never had to fit the double album concept, it’s this second half.
I’m not sure where to start, either. There’s, again, the weirdly inconsistent, glistening acoustics carrying “Still Goin’ Down” that’s trying to act as a bro-country checklist song, as well as the slick, bouncy tones of the title track that don’t remotely match the sentiment of wanting to stay home and not make an ass of yourself in public at the bars, which, like “Warning,” feels oddly rushed in its attempt to be personal. It’s like a Kid Rock revival-meets-Jason Aldean wet dream otherwise, from the overused country clichés that sound more defensive than proud on “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt,” the trashy butt-rock of “Beer Don’t” and “Somethin’ Country” to, yes, “Country A$$ Shit.” It’s all utterly stupid and contradicts the first half’s best moments. This just feels like a retread of a style that’s been done better before. I guess this half finds a slightly more consistent footing starting with “Need a Boat,” which is sort of fun in its callbacks to a ‘90s sound. And “Quittin’ Time” is a genuinely excellent way of turning the page on that sordid past and moving on with what you have left and the lessons learned … which is a bit hard to buy into more when, for one, it’s an Eric Church co-write that he would have sold much better and that Wallen had no part in, and that it would have fit much better at the end of the first half. And any sympathy I might have felt for him selling fame as an utterly miserable experience on “Livin’ The Dream” is completely undermined by the utterly stupid nonsense that proceeds it on this half.
Of course, that’s stating the obvious, in that this would have been a much better single project than a bloated double album. But even then, I’d be left asking which side of Wallen’s is actually sincere – the utterly stupid goofball engaging in, I repeat, “Country A$$ Shit,” or the person who acknowledges he has some growing up to do. Again, forget proper sequencing or a consistent thematic arc, or even a consistent sound across the board, because that’s all for naught here. It’ll do exactly what it set out to do and will easily be the biggest project of 2021, I’m aware. But I’m still left in this weirdly complicated place with Wallen, where the potential for something more is there, but doesn’t often get reflected in the actual material.
- Favorite tracks: “Wonderin’ ‘Bout the Wind,” “Quittin’ Time,” “Neon Eyes,” “More Surprised Than Me,” “Sand in My Boots”
- Least favorite tracks: “Warning,” “Somethin’ Country,” “Still’ Goin’ Down”