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36 songs, no apologies: Morgan Wallen delivers more (much more) of what made him country’s king

The track “Outlook” arrives 35 tracks into Morgan Wallen’s 36-track behemoth of a new album, meaning that by the time you finally get to it, you’ll be pretty well prepared for all the hard-won knowledge he has to drop. And for the first few lines of the song about “20/20 hindsight vision,” it seems clear where the country star is headed: two years after he was caught on video drunk using the N-word to refer to a friend — an incident that sparked widespread debate about country music’s historical relationship to race – the beginning of “Outlook” suggests that Wallen has given serious thought to the way he sees the world and his place in it.

Then the chorus hits.

“Now my outlook on life is different than it used to be,” he sings over a finger-picked acoustic guitar, “My outlook is, someone up there is looking down and looking out for me.”

In other words, Wallen’s realization about white male privilege is that it feels like a blessing.

Which of course it was. “Dangerous,” Wallen’s 2021 double LP, endured a brief moment of backlash to become the year’s biggest album of any genre, and no fewer than three pre-works on the new project, “One Thing at a Time,” are currently in the top 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart, including the sensual “Last Night,” which just logged its third week at No. 1. Thanks to expected massive numbers on Spotify and the like, ‘One Thing at a Time’ will almost certainly debut atop the Billboard 200 just as Wallen prepares to launch a US stadium tour that is sure to be one of the most lucrative of the year . (He plays at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium on July 22.)

In an era where streaming and TikTok have decentralized the music business, stripping power from the old gatekeepers, the only voice that matters is the people, and they’ve clearly rallied behind Wallen; indeed, it is not so much anyone above who saved him from destruction, but the millions of devoted people here on earth.

The question regarding the new album is therefore how Wallen uses his privilege.

You may be wondering why (and if) he should consider it at all. According to many accounts — including those of prominent black artists such as country singer Darius Rucker and rapper Lil Durk, with whom Wallen recorded the duet “Broadway Girls” in 2021 — the 29-year-old singer is not a racist. He has undoubtedly benefited from a system based on racism, yes, but in that he is no different from countless other white entertainers, politicians and businessmen.

However, throughout these three dozen issues, Wallen continues to tiptoe with the idea that he made serious mistakes and learned valuable lessons; he’s clearly aware of the perceived need to make amends for what he did — “One Thing at a Time” isn’t a pugnacious, Kid Rock-esque indictment of the encroachment of cancellation culture — but he continues to fall short of providing any real show introspection. The result is a kind of paradox: an album weighed down by an obligation it refuses to take on.

Which would be easier to reconcile if Wallen didn’t occasionally battle the culture war in real life, like when he accepted an invitation to perform at a recent inaugural celebration for Tennessee Gov. drag performances in Wallen’s home state. This kind of political activism undermines the reasonableness of an artist’s expectation that their music will be considered outside of politics.

But another sign of Wallen’s privilege is that he’s been given that latitude. So what’s there to like about “One Thing at a Time” other than that it dodges the thorny issues few in its audience are likely to want it to address? It’s too long for starters, but that goes without saying in a streaming economy whose ethos of set it all and forget it has also inspired marathon LPs from Zach Bryan and Luke Combs.

Wallen has said the album’s 36 songs fall into three groups: traditional country songs, hip-hop-inspired songs, and songs in a mode he calls “dirt rock” that stem from the 1980s revivalist heartland-isms of the Killers and the War. to drugs. And there are certainly clear examples of each, like “Everything I Love,” which places luscious vocal harmonies over a galloping beat à la classic Alabama; the throbbing “180 (Lifestyle),” which interpolates elements from “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan; and ‘Whiskey Friends’, which pretty much borrows the central riff from ‘Mr. Positive side.”

But most of the rest fades out for nearly two hours into a sound neatly triangulated by those styles; Morgan Wallen’s quintessential song blends country, rap, and rock in a manner similar to the quintessential Post Malone song (albeit in slightly different proportions). His skill as a singer – and he’s one of the most skilled in Nashville – is the flexibility of his voice, which can go from snarling to moaning in just a few lines; sometimes he does both in the same line, as in “Money on Me,” an account of his tendency to disappoint in which he records a mixture of shame and pride as he says to a potential lover, “Frankly, I’d put my money on me.”

His flow has become sharper than on “Dangerous”; he is able to tackle more difficult cadences, such as on the sneaky ‘Me + All Your Reasons’ and ‘Good Girl Gone Missin’, in which fast staccato phrases are placed between folksy guitars. And his vocal runs in a track like “Keith Whitley,” titled after the late country music singer, have an appealing gruffness even at their lithest.

Because “One Thing at a Time” sounds so uniform, what takes each tune to the next level is the depth and specificity of the songwriting, for which Wallen, a gifted writer himself, enlisted the help of dozens of Nashville pros, including his old friends Hardy and Ernest along with Miranda Lambert, Hillary Lindsey and Ryan Hurd. (One way to make sure you’re embraced once again by the establishment: become one of Music Row’s most trusted employers.)

The least interesting songs here are those about self-destruction and the quest for redemption, not only because they sidestep the specifics of Wallen’s notoriety, but because they fall into tearful clichés – a failure of both courage and taste. Much livelier are songs about sex like “Last Night” (“I kiss your lips / Make you grip the sheets with your fingertips”) and songs about lost love like “Tennessee Numbers,” in which he features the photo of him and an ex who used to served as the lock screen on her phone.

“’98 Braves” and “Tennessee Fan” use smart sports imagery in romantic stories, and “Thought You Should Know” addresses the singer’s mother with touching familiarity. On the other hand, once he tells her about his new girlfriend and they laugh at the “stupid s…” his father has been up to, he lets his mother know that “all those prayers you thought you wasted on me, should be made at last.” their way through.” Another problem solved.