No matter how many years you have to count back to when Kenny Chesney was the top male performer in modern country, he is still the man at the top of the heap when it comes to touring. Aside from Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney is only the guy who can consistently fill stadiums with his huge fan base known as “No Shoes Nation.” That’s also how his new record shot to #1 in all of music upon its debut, helped along by an aggressive ticket bundle moving nearly a quarter million units during its first week.
Taking a play out of the book of his mentor Jimmy Buffett, Chesney has cultivated an identity for his fan base, becoming just as much a brand than a musician, selling fans on a lock step lifestyle centered around sandy beach escapism and large amounts of discretionary spending on vacations and high ticket consumer goods. It’s these super consumers that sit right in the bullseye of the advertisers that support mainstream country radio and stage shows, and make Chesney a marketing machine for himself and others. Hits or not, Kenny Chesney just sells.
It’s in feeding this constituency with answer backs and applause lines for the next stadium show that Chesney opens the new record, Here and Now. The first song called “We Do” is all about reinforcing that “No Shoes Nation” identity, while the next song and title track basically do the same, imploring the audience to live in the moment, soak it all up, let yesterday be forgotten, and tomorrow take care of itself.
But critics following Chesney lately have noticed that unlike some of his contemporaries, he’s showing the propensity to grow old with his music more than to attempt to chase whatever hot trend might be out there in popular country at the moment. You won’t hear any Bro-Country or Boyfriend Country on this record, no rapping from the man in Panama Jack attire, and any electronic beats or snaps tracks are relegated to a few song intros.
That also means you’re going to get allotment of songs that actually work as songs. “Knowing You” starts off, “…you’ve probably got your toes in the sand…” and your eyes immediately begin to roll. But the song actually reveals itself as quite well-written and sentimental. It’s set to a waltz beat, and dear God you actually hear steel guitar in the background.
Though much more contemporary pop in approach, “Someone To Fix” is nonetheless a good song too, and shows empathy towards a lover without sliding into that objectionably sentimental realm of Boyfriend Country. “You Don’t Get To” also deals with relationships in a distinctly adult manner, while “Heartbreakers” is a reminiscent and fun Southern pop tune. The music still isn’t country, but it is age appropriate, which is more than you can say when you hear the latest song from Keith Urban, or some of the other repeat offenders in contemporary “country” who can’t act their age.
Granted, these quality selections are interspersed between songs that attempt to significantly fortify that carefree No Shoes Nation vibe like “Happy Does” and “Beautiful World”—not necessarily an evil quality, but not the role country music is supposed to play such a major part in when it comes to the expanse of popular music. That’s pop’s job.
But the two songs that have been the biggest talk of Here and Now are “Tip Of My Tongue” and “Guys Named Captain.” For many, they define the spectrum between the good and bad that Here and Now contains.
Yes, “Tip Of My Tongue” co-written by Ed Sheeran is most certainly a thinly-veiled composition celebrating oral sex, and also happens to mark some of the most pop contemporary production on the record. It feels like the reaction to this song should be very negative, if not embarrassing or insulting. But as the 9th track on a late career Kenny Chesney record, it really is mostly innocuous. No, it’s not a good song. But let’s also not be so uptight. Release it as a single, and then we’ll have some moral quandaries to discuss.
Oh wait, “Tip Of My Tongue” was a Kenny Chesney’s current radio single? It peaked at #8 you say? Well then yeah, that’s some bullshit. Leave the song for mom and dad to enjoy, not for the 11-year-old in the back seat to slowly realize what it’s about, and start asking mom and dad questions they’re not ready to answer.
“Guys Named Captain” shows off what Kenny Chesney can do at his best. Written by James T. Slater who might be best known for co-writing Jamey Johnson’s “High Cost of Living,” it’s a darn good nightcap to an otherwise average beach excursion, even if it feels much more personal to James T. Slater than Chesney himself. Kenny has commonly found songs like this and championed them, even if they tend to come at the end of his records when most of the “No Shoes Nation” have their noses smelling like tequila and margarita mix, and are nodding off beneath the cabana bar, barely paying attention.
Where Kenny Chesney’s last album Songs for the Saints really seemed like a turning of the page and a surprising shift forward, Here and Now feels like an effort to shore up his “No Shoes Nation” fan base, and not challenge them to think beyond the norm. It’s also distinctly not a country record aside for a few spots, even though that sort of goes with the territory at this point.
But when regarding it in the wide panorama of popular country, yes, the critical praise for this album is probably correct for the most part. It is better than most. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t allow Here and Now to rise to a level of being particularly “good.”
1 1/4 Guns Up (5.5/10)