The sad truth about mainstream country artists sidestepping trends in favor of crafting more unique works is that, though it is great to see and even better to hear – and, for that matter, won’t be ignored by folks more “in the know” – at the end of the day, critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills. My go-to example for this is always Brett Eldredge’s 2020 Sunday Drive project, a fantastic country-soul album, but also one that got lost in the shuffle of, well, that whole year. And while I do think follow-up Songs About You from earlier this year is nearly just as great, it is a noticeably smoother project geared more toward an accessible commercial comeback.
And if I’m looking for the other obvious example of this to emerge in recent years, it’s Randy Houser’s 2019 album Magnolia, a project that signaled an overall sharper shift toward a more mature, swaggering palette for him (instrumentally and lyrically) … that fared much worse than his two previous bro-country-leaning projects before it. Basically, it’s been a long time coming for what’s next for him, and to little surprise, his newest album is a noticeably more polished effort across the board. Now, that does mean I’ll likely sound like I’m coming down harder on Note to Self than expected, but for one, look, I get it. And two, I will say right away that I like how Houser continues to trend in an overall mature, heartfelt direction. His voice has always had a sizzling growl and gravitas to it than can make his work feel more lived-in and older. And that can lend some genuine weight to the overall progression of having to grow up and learn some hard lessons on the title track, or a more straightforward breakup track like “Call Me.”
And hey, he can still be a hell-raiser too, if he wants to be – he’s just in a more relaxed state these days. If anything, though, it’s why I like the wily bemusement of his wild rides coming through now in the form of settling down on “Still That Cowboy.” And the 2000s-esque rollick of “Country Round Here Tonight” manages to click with me on a pretty basic level – stupid title aside – but I think the barn-burning “Out and Down” is even better, twisting the familiar titular phrase from its usual breakup focus into an excuse to blow off steam.
But there’s also no getting around the abundance of tracks reliant more country clichés and platitudes aimed to pander and little more, made more noticeable by the album’s shorter length. Never bad, mind you – again, I’d say Houser’s deliver and a restraint in the overall writing help these come across as sincere rather than meat-headed – and I don’t mind the handclap stomp of “Workin’ Man,” but between it, “Rub a Little Dirt On It,” and “American Dreamer,” it loses a bit of the unique edge that makes more introspective tracks like the title track or “Call Me” stand out better. Granted, given my introduction, I’m surprised the title track is the single, given that it’s a bit more reliant on storytelling and progression (through mostly still imagery, mind you, but still), and says a lot, mainly through subtext, about how the protagonist’s alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies caused him to lose out on a lot of good things in life.
But if I’m looking for the other reason why this album is missing that extra spark to propel it forward, it would come in the overall instrumentation and production. Again, like with before, it’s nice to hear Houser mostly reliant on warm, organic tones. But I did miss the rougher edges and moments that titled into southern-rock and soul and blues off of Magnolia in favor of an album here mostly split between straightforward neotraditional country and smoother adult-contemporary. It just makes moments like “Take It to the Bank” and even “Call Me” a bit sleepier than they need to be, even if I do like some of the spacious warmth in the keys that gets to shine on the latter track.
And again, I get why this safer follow-up isn’t as expressive as its predecessor, but knowing what Houser is capable of at his best just makes this feel a bit underwhelming as a result. Still solid and likable enough, and he’s still trending in the right direction overall; it just needed a bit more meat on its bones to climb higher, that’s all.
- Favorite tracks: “Still That Cowboy,” “Note to Self,” “Call Me,” “Down and Out”
- Least favorite track: “Take It to the Bank”