As mainstream country continues to grow sleeker, it's easy to forget that the music has long been steeped in anguish, moroseness, remorse, and overwhelming quantities of sentimentality and alcohol. So Kenny Chesney deserves credit for at least dipping his toes into country's dark backwater: The lyrics alone on No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems will leave you more despondent than the latest Puddle of Mudd and Korn albums combined.
Sounding more senior than his 34 years, Chesney has chosen songs in which he reminisces wistfully about the end of his free-spirited youth (''Young,'' ''Never Gonna Feel That Way Again''); ticks off a list of regrets, from missing an Elvis concert to not talking to his father enough (''A Lot of Things Different''); and tries unsuccessfully to blot a former love out of his mind (''I Remember,'' ''I Can't Go There''). Then there's the sad Walgreens employee in ''Live Those Songs'' who still wishes Creedence songs were on the radio. All told, it's enough to make a teetotaler reach for a bottle of whatever's around.
Unfortunately, ''No Shoes,'' which had no problem entering the pop chart at No. 1, doesn't cut as deeply in the music department. Its polite swing, fussy ballads, and modest attempts to rock the house are all laid out in the handbook Garth Brooks devised a decade ago. Like Brooks, Chesney has a pleasant baritone; his version of ''One Step Up,'' Bruce Springsteen's gloomy recounting of an unraveling relationship, won't make you forget the original, yet Chesney does sound invested in the material. But in general, Chesney tends to play it safer than he should. In the mellow ballad ''The Good Stuff,'' for instance, he heads to the local watering hole to submerge his sorrows, only to be told by the barkeep -- whose wife died of cancer, incidentally -- that the real meaning of the ''good stuff'' is life's positive memories. Then they share a drink -- milk.