***½ (out of 4 stars)
Label: BNA Records
Hemingway’s Whiskey is the first extraordinary Kenny Chesney album since No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems. Chesney is the master of sounding stalwart, yet unforced, and the songs he picked for this album reflect this. They are a little more grown-up than usual, while also being a lot more graceful than songs he’s tackled on albums past.
Proving that term limits can be a good idea, Kenny Chesney is back after a hiatus with a solid album that holds several potential hit singles. The four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year will give up that title this year (after all, touring is an especially important part of getting nominated in that category). But luckily for us, he spent the last year in the recording studio rather than touring (OK, he probably spent most of that time on a boat, but you get the idea), and now he really has something worth taking out on the road again.
Taking a hiatus has given Chesney a new perspective on his music. He is smart enough to know that for an artist, repetition can lead to stagnation. Now Chesney gives us Hemingway’s Whiskey, an introspective album that, unlike most of his previous albums, is less about nostalgia about the glorious past and more about the uncertainty of the present and the future. And Chesney sounds better than ever.
So here’s a toast to the man. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “This wine is too good for toast-drinking… You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” Sorry, Hemingway, in this case the emotions (smoother, deeper, and more relaxed) only make it more potent.
“Boys Of Fall” (written by Casey Beathard/Dave Turnbull) – “Boys Of Fall” is a song about the small town football season, but it really describes the values of small town life. For me, it is the line in the song that says, “In little towns like mine, that’s all we got” that really resonates. Back in my hometown of Sebastopol, CA we had a Main Street divided by some train tracks, but we didn’t have a movie theater, a fast food drive-thru, or really anything other than the 7-11 parking lot to pass the time. Of course, looking back now, I realize we had everything that I want in a hometown (including the Friday night high school football game). Just as I am all too aware with each football season of getting closer to the 50-yard line on the field of life expectancy, so too can you hear Kenny Chesney’s trepidation about the approaching middle age. The song brilliantly sets up an album that will use nostalgia as a tool to deal with the thoughts and emotions that arrive with growing maturity.
“Live A Little (Love A Lot)” (written by Shane Minor/David Lee Murphy) – This track proves that Chesney can still let loose. This song conveys the sound that a Kenny Chesney concert sounds like. Its sound and philosophy are definitive Kenny Chesney: work really hard, I give everything to what your passion is, and give just as much to your love and don’t forget to “live a little.”
“You And Tequila” (written by Matraca Berg/Deana Carter) – This track featuring the perfect vocal partner in Vermont rocker Grace Potter (of The Nocturnals). The song is filled with a sense of numb longing: “It isn’t easy to forget/The bitter taste morning left.” In this stunning duet the two deal with wrestling the demons of alcohol and each other: “One more night could kill me/One is one too many/One more is never enough,” they sing, gently resigned to their fate. It recalls, although not nearly as tragically, the incomparable “Whiskey Lullaby” from Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. It is a modern-day take on that couple; they are more capable of functioning and therefore, all the sadder for it.
“Round And Round” (written by Scotty Emerick/Paul Overstreet/Even Stevens) – This is something different for Chesney, melodically and production-wise. It focuses on the “grass is always greener” irony that everyone runs into, no matter who they are. The Rolling Stones had their “I ain’t got no satisfaction,” then Kenny Chesney reminds us that some things never change. As usual Chesney sings to us to enjoy the moment in the present. The song has a gravity to it that is appealing at this point in Chesney’s career.
“Somewhere With You” (written by J.T. Harding/Shane McAnally) – OK, here it is – this one is the tortured soul song of the album. It’s about trying to keep things in balance, but it doesn’t wallow in the brooding sound you might expect; it simply tries to hold things together, while all the time what it wants to do is completely unravel. It is an exciting performance from Chesney and I want to hear it on the radio. It’d be good for country music if this became a single.
(written by Guy Clark/Ray Stephenson/Joe Leathers) –
Here’s the Kenny Chesney song I was hoping I’d hear on his new album; mature, reflexive, sensitive yet hard-edged and unsentimental. It is clear that Chesney knows his Hemingway (and his whiskey). When a singer knows what the heck they’re talking about, it’s best just to turn up the volume a little, and just enjoy Chesney singing a line like “Sail away, sail away, three sheets to the wind/live hard, die hard, this one’s for him.”