For the better part of this new century, country superstar Kenny Chesney has criss-crossed America selling his laissez-faire musical lifestyle, rooted in tank tops and rum. But now, at the increasingly ripe age of 39, the flip-flops may be starting to chafe, as the singer begins wondering if life as a hillbilly rock star is all it’s cracked up to be. With his 11th album, the woefully titled Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates, that existential crisis is on full display.
Despite being a decent songwriter (see ”Beer in Mexico,” the best song from 2005’s The Road and the Radio), Chesney penned none of Just Who I Am’s 11 tracks. Yet many of the tunes he’s chosen seem personal, not to mention pensive — take ”Better as a Memory,” a sweet ‘n’ low meditation on love and leaving, or ”Demons,” an austere album closer that lets regret and whiskey flow free. These are simple, earnest songs from the perspective of someone realizing his limitations as a man.
But don’t despair, party people. While the lyrics are engaging (and, yes, emotionally honest), it’s not like Chesney’s fiddling around with some alt-country concept album here. The usual bulletproof, radio-friendly production remains fully intact. Insanely pleasant first single ”Never Wanted Nothing More” and the Mellencampian riffs of ”Just Not Today” both trade on memories of girls, summer days, and pickup trucks (a few of Chesney’s favorite subjects) to fire up those who prefer to remember life like it probably never was. The Dwight Yoakam-penned ”Wild Ride” is a surrealist journey drenched in vocoder, so you know it’s fun. And two odd though still catchy songs appear to have wandered in from another, less good album: ”Shiftwork,” a calypso duet with George Strait, and ”Dancin’ for the Groceries,” a single-mom stripper saga that’s undermined by lines like ”So she puts on a dress that might feel pretty/If she didn’t have to take it off again.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Just Who I Am’s finest moment comes via the fusion of commercialism and contemplation. ”Don’t Blink” is a meticulously pop-crafted slow burner with a monster hook that also features a reflective verse: ”Best start puttin’ first things first/’Cause when your hourglass runs outta sand/You can’t flip it over, start again.” Brilliant poetry it’s not, but let’s hope that revelation sticks. For while Chesney can always count on the booze-cruise crowd, the tentative maturity that threads its way through Just Who I Am reveals an artist ready and able to try something deeper. And there’s a lot of us out here who’d happily raise a rum punch to that. B
Download This: See the video for Kenny Chesney’s ”Don’t Blink”