This might be an unfamiliar name to you, and establishing the context behind it feels like one of the stranger ways I’ve opened a review before. Alex Williams made his debut five years ago with a rough-edged, decidedly ‘70s-inspired country album not unlike what Cody Jinks and Ward Davis are doing now … just released on Big Machine Records, of all places. Yeah, this was still a strange time when the industry wasn’t sure where to take the genre next in the post-bro-country fallout and the independent movement was gaining legitimate traction. It’s humorous to think now how it’s all running parallel now on its own two feet to a still mostly homogenized mainstream scene, as while Big Machine tried their hand at cultivating their own niche with acts like Williams and Midland, neither one ever really took off.
And going back to Williams’ debut specifically, it’s the type of album that feels reminiscent of the era it’s trying to conjure and certainly indebted to the influences, just without the sharper writing or really distinctive details to set it apart further. And while I still think that holds somewhat true with Williams’ overdue follow-up, Waging Peace – released on an independent label and away from Big Machine, by the way – this is at least a needed step forward that showcases more potential than before.
Granted, it’s also the type of album that’s hard to discuss at length, mostly due to it sticking close to familiar songwriting tropes and compositional instincts of that tried-and-true outlaw era. To be fair, for an album that trades mostly between old-school country and southern-rock, the production is much heftier than before and actually carries a lot of needed grit and muscle in the guitar work to amplify the album’s meatier grooves, letting Williams’ band flex without necessarily making the project feel self-indulgent or drag too long. Straightforward to a point, too, without a lot of further greater dynamics to give this a bit more unique personality, but with enough grit added, good tunes still emerge. I enjoy the old-school rollick of the mostly tongue-in-cheek “Old Before My Time,” and the smoky, minor haze shrouding the keys gives “Fire” a nice ghostly swell. And when Williams leans into more potent slow-burns toward the end anchored in a lot of introspective songwriting detail and hazier, atmospheric texture – like on “The Struggle” and “The Vice” – I’d argue there’s some great potential here; even “No Reservations” and “Double Nickel” are just no-frills, straightforward kick-ass tunes.
When it comes to the writing, however, this is where I think the album can still feel a bit one-dimensional and a bit cliché in what it’s going for. Williams essentially described this album as a struggle between the good and bad natures of being a lonely touring musician – from a distance, the evergreen struggles of good and evil we all endure – which is an admittedly played-out archetype, but one that could still work if the writing could support it or take it in interesting directions. And I do think this album, compared to his debut, tries to be a bit more introspective in fleshing out that greater arc. With that said, it’s also a project that can feel a bit broadly sketched and reliant on outlaw-era clichés, perhaps needing just a bit more personal detail in the writing to add greater urgency to the stakes here.
You’ll still get nuggets of wisdom here and there: “Old Before My Time” trades between self-deprecation and brutally honest humor to point out that he’s too young to really understand the true nature of hard living – a unique perspective that also contributes nicely toward closer “The Vice,” about the consequences of romanticizing the dangerous mystique surrounding musical legends and their sordid tales. But more often than not the album can feel a bit too low-key and muted on moments like “Rock Bottom” and “Higher Road” to come together better, even if I wouldn’t say there are really any duds, outside of maybe the checklist-driven “Confession.” It’s definitely an ambitious project, and certainly the better introduction to Williams’ work than his debut. But I still think there’s room for improvement – a good next step that, hopefully, will give way to something great in a few years; I think he has it in him.
- Favorite tracks: “No Reservations,” “Old Before My Time,” “Fire,” “The Vice”
- Least favorite track: “Confession”