The Road and the Radio
enny Chesney has gone from strength to strength, moving from weakness to being one of the best singers in country, from an unknown quantity to a superstar, and from someone who trafficked in clichés and silliness to something larger and more haunting. Which is why it’s so disappointing that The Road and The Radio is not very good. It hardly matters: critics are eunuchs before his fan base and his talented manipulation of mainstream desires.
I thought at first that he was worn out and hadn't really spent time thinking about things before he went and put another one out. A party song, a heartbreak song, a nostalgia song, and a drinking song—its formulaic. But formula doesn’t matter: it’s what you do with the formula.
As is the norm for too many country artists, profligacy is a requirement. (Merle Haggard has a little more than 70 albums, Loretta Lynn has more then 50, and Willie Nelson has so many that he can’t remember. And for the more recent artists? Tim McGraw has ten in as many years, 14 for Toby Keith, ten for Faith Hill—and those don't include the DVD collections or EPs) In this context Kenny's nine albums are perfectly reasonable. So if the mediocrity does not come from the sheer volume of Chesney's output, then perhaps we can lay the blame at the feet of Sammy Hagar. It was recorded, in part, at Hagar's estate in Mexico, and you can hear it all over the place…in the guitar work, in the arrogance of the lyrics, in the sexuality, and sometimes more explicitly. The ending of “Beer in Mexico,” which goes on for a little more than a minute and a half, is pure 80s pop metal bombast. No lyrics, just guitar.
This seems a poor fit, especially since the nostalgic melancholy that makes Chesney’s best work is completely overrun by kitsch in Hagar's worst. This tendency towards kitsch is marked most heavily in the lyrics. Chesney hires good writers. He believes what they say, and he translates it effectively through performance. However, here he chooses work that catalogs clichés, with nothing that changes or affects them. “Would you see the world / Would you chase your dreams / Settle down with your family / I wonder what you would name your babies" (From Who You'd be Today) or "I am right upon the edge / Dangling my toes right over the ledge" or "It’s hard loving a man who has a gypsy soul" (both from the laughable “You Save Me”).
“In a Small Town” is an inferior version of Tim McGraw's “Drugs or Jesus,” same message, same themes, just not nearly as good. You can follow this pattern out, “Summertime” should be sung by Alan Jackson on an album released in July, “Tequila Loves Me” is a hard drinking pleasure song, that should be taken care of by Toby Keith, and the video for “Where'd You Be Today” is a patriotic gloss on Green Day's “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
All of this marks the lack of ambition that Chesney has on this album. Last time around, the website had small videos explaining each song, there was a television special, the songs were recorded well, and the album had a cohesion. Here the website is bare, the television special is on ABC and focuses on his CMT Award and not the album, and there is no cohesion to be found. In fact he sounds ragged, out of tune in places. He simply doesn't sing as well as he used to.
All of that said, there are points of cleverness and strength. His voice, depending on his effects, still turns me on and still sends shivers down my spine. I remember the hooks, the vocal tricks, the sadness and the joy. But there’s really no need in buying this one, the next one will come in a few months. And we can probably excuse him a bit: he's had a hell of a year, and his desperation to make it about the music again merely finds him reaching out to the wrong people to help.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-11-16