Album Review: Morgan Wade – ‘Reckless’

Reckless offers a natural expansion of Morgan Wade’s sound while also carving out the next part of her story, and across the board, it’s a great project.

Preamble

You know, as far as the independent country circuit is concerned, this may have been the most anticipated release of the year.

Think about that for a second: A project with a ton of legitimate buzz surrounding it from an artist not quite yet established, driven off pure grassroots support. It’s always encouraging to see that happen in country music, of course, and if you don’t know Morgan Wade, I think you’re about to.

For context: She’s a Virginia native who started by billing herself as Morgan Wade & the Stepbrothers, with a band formed off Craigslist, of all places, that released a pretty solid debut album back in 2018. Listening to it now, I really dig the rough-around-the-edges presentation and the punk-meets-rock-meets-country fusion in the guitar tones that tipped its hat towards something of an earlier underground, alternative country sound – in other words, seeing American Aquarium listed as one influence wasn’t much of a surprise. And I really liked the darker, honest subtext of alcoholism that framed Wade’s own personal battles throughout that album.

If anything, though, it was her OurVinyl Sessions from last year that really seemed to attract everyone’s attention, along with news of her working with Sadler Vaden, known for his work in Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band and own solo projects. So, OK, the Stepbrothers moniker is no more, Vaden’s working production duties, and I really liked the album’s lead single, “Wilder Days,” so while she was new to me at the beginning of the year, I had every reason to be excited for this.

The Review

There’s a shade of irony coloring this review: For one, I’m really just joining the choir telling you all that is a pretty great sophomore release for Wade that could very well be a breakthrough moment. But it’s also the sort of greatness that doesn’t require a lot of words to describe it, either. It’s well-balanced country music that straddles the edges of rock and pop for something noticeably more polished and brighter than that aforementioned debut. Honestly, there’s a part of me that misses the rougher edges of that project compared to this one, but when weighing in the history and context surrounding both releases, this feels like the natural extension of Wade’s sound and where’s she heading, artistically and personally.

On that note, instrumentation and production certainly provides the most interesting opening discussion point, namely in the commitment to a well-textured mix across the board. Granted, it’s also obvious that her and Vaden are having a bit too much fun with the synthetic elements and reverb at points – namely with “Other Side” – and I would say there’s an element of figuring out to fully hammer out the sound that runs across this album. But considering this album is aiming for something noticeably more chipper in tone, I love the multitude of electric guitar timbres that flesh out the mix, carrying tones that lean a little cooler against the atmospherics and basslines that can support the grooves. Granted, it’s not a groove-heavy project, and while I do wish this album captured the rollicking high and huge hook of “Wilder Days” or the wistful touches of “Matches & Metaphors” more here, it’s an album that does a lot with a fairly simple guitar-drum mix.

What I appreciate more, then, is how this album always support an acoustic foundation, with the songs always building off from that and building the mix around it. They’ll build as they progress, but that subtle touch is something I did appreciate here, especially when it adds a noticeable smolder to the project that’s weary without being overly dark. There’s always a sense of optimism on display here, and while “Don’t Cry” does bring noticeably moodier tones to frame the other side of that conversation, that mandolin creeps in right when she’s reminding herself to stay strong. There are points where it can feel like a little much, though: For as much as I appreciate “Last Cigarette” and the title track bringing some needed energy alongside “Wilder Days” here, they’re slick and not far removed from the more generic side of pop-country. It’s not as convincing for the style or Wade herself. If anything, when the production mostly gets out of the way, like on “Mend” (from her 2018 album, and probably the lesser version, to be honest, even if it’s still a great song), “Take Me Away” and especially “Northern Air” against the rickety percussion that adds a sense of urgency, it’s a better fit overall.

Of course, that brings us to Wade as a vocalist, and while she’s certainly got the haggard edge to sell the weary resignation required of the sentiments examined through the content, she never sounds outright fried. She’s got that expressive howl to lend a distinctive personality to these tracks. That makes sense, too, considering this is largely shaped around lessons learned and how to move past them, where instead of being content to wallow in that misery, she’s going to confront them head-on and brave those storms, come what may. I wish more tracks here other than the more straightforward ballads showcased that a little better, given that the vocal production can get a little too heavy and overproduced at times here for my personal tastes, but she always rises above anyway. She’s a fantastic presence behind the microphone.

Now, unlike that debut, this album doesn’t aim to address a troubled past so much as learn how to look past it and move forward while still learning along the way. And while that’s framed mostly through relationships here, what I appreciate is a sense of mature framing, namely in how she looks to her partner as a kindred spirit who understands that past on a somewhat even level. So even when that partner acts guarded about their own troubled past on “Wilder Days” in fear of the memories it could reopen, she wants to know anyway, because for her, acceptance of that past and one’s self is crucial in learning how to forgive and move on. And while the analytical part of me appreciates a cohesive plot that shows that relationship crumble by its end, it’s more about how these tracks connect to the overall picture of Wade’s own part in that healing process.

Even when “The Other Side” begins to default to basic “we’ll make it because we love each other” platitudes, it circles back around to that love only working through work, honesty, and commitment. Confident, but never outright sure of itself, which is why “Don’t Cry” is a brutal follow-up in opening up about her own self-destructive tendencies that can cause her to love too fast and too hard … which mostly frames the unraveling of the second half. I would say that’s where the writing can start to falter a bit, though – I like that “Mend” works here in framing her significant other’s departure as a wake-up call for her own actions taken in the relationship, but when the title track aims for the same sentiment with a more boilerplate framing mechanism, it’s not as effective. With that said, and going back to “Mend,” she’s always understanding of her partner’s own decisions to leave, because she knows that while having that kindred spirit helps, it’s tough to admit those faults or get help for them. It’s why having those backing vocals creep in during the chorus adds a fantastically subtle touch of creating and noting that distance between them. And the hurt is obviously still there, which is part of why I love the general chill and intimacy surrounding “Northern Air” so much. Again, too, it’s another moment where the production and instrumentation supports the content, continuously simmering and building that emotional swell throughout.

Then it ends with “Met You” and, ultimately, takes solace in knowing that fleeting encounter with someone in a similar situation helped her better herself along the way. It’s not a personal favorite of mine – the mix pushes her a little too far to the front and the twinkling synthetic textures feel more distracting than anything else – but I like that it creates a noticeable path forward for her and builds the next part of that story. And considering this is likely to be one of the year’s bigger releases, it’s absolutely the right time to get acquainted with Wade. The writing is excellent, she’s an absolutely wonderful presence, and while I do think there’s room to improve with the overall sound and presentation, this is a great independent country project worth supporting right now.

(Decent 8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Wilder Days,” “Northern Air,” “Matches & Metaphors,” “Don’t Cry,” “Mend”
  • Least favorite track: “Other Side”

Buy or stream the album.