Album Review – Morgan Wade’s “Reckless”

photo: David McClister

For years we’ve been on the hunt for that woman who can rise up from the ranks of independent country artists to be a game changer that challenges the mainstream like we’ve seen from Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, and the like.

As successful as the independent side of country has been these last few years in launching artists to turn the tables on the mainstream monopoly, it’s been seriously lopsided at the top end as we’ve seen artists such as Margo Price and others sold as independent superstars struggle to find that next tier of success. It’s not from a lack of talent. The line forms to the left with women whose music is worthy of such rising action. But strangely, there is commonly a disconnect between those women, and the ones touted the loudest in the media or in the public. That lack of consensus has resulted in a crater in representation.

That is where Morgan Wade has entered the conversation, and done so with a lot of initial praise and promise, born off the resonance of live performances on YouTube of stellar tear-stained original songs, and buzz from important sectors. From Roanoke, Virginia, she comes from the right region in Appalachia that has birthed so many of the current generation’s country heroes. Her sleeves of ink and neck tattoos might be a liability with the blue hairs, but also speak to the real, gritty, lived-in attitude that is behind much of the appeal of independent country music at the moment. Morgan Wade has the authenticity true country audiences crave.

Now after numerous videos reaching well above 100,000 views, Morgan Wade drops her debut album Reckless on us, produced by Sadler Vaden who is best known as the guitarist in Jason’s Isbell’s 400 Unit. As promised, many of the songs of Reckless speak to Morgan Wade’s unsettled mind, reminding you very much of your own troubled moments, even if left behind in youth. From nervous breakdowns to searing assessments of self-worth amid torrid and broken relationships, as Morgan Wade pinballs between emotional meltdowns, so do you in a way that awakens the juices of life in an agreeable manner.

The specificity in Morgan Wade’s stories of heartbreak such as “Mend” and “Northern Air” tear at the heart, while the yearning and lonesomeness at the core of “Take Me Away” reels you right in. Wade’s confident but weathered voice with a hint of Southern flavor envelops the words in a level or realism impossible to counterfeit, and improbable to earn with mere practice and emulation. Either you carry the weight like Morgan Wade does—and sing about your troubles not because you want to, but because you have to—or you don’t.

What seems amiss here though is how this is all presented in the production and music of Reckless. What we were sold not just by the media and marketing of this album, but also in our mind’s eye when we watched her perform songs acoustically was an Outlaw country, or country rock artist with the grit, story, and skin art to back it up. But what we receive on Reckless is much more an Americana project that at times creeps towards Triple A, and even pop. When the first song on the album “Wilder Days” starts up, you immediately think of Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames,” while lines like “The way you move your hands across my body. I’m kissing you in a hotel lobby…” feel more suitable for Taylor Swift.

It’s not really that the album isn’t country enough. Morgan Wade is a songwriter first, which gives herself and producers the latitude to explore whatever sonic landscapes they feel are right for a given song. It’s just that Reckless isn’t really country at all, almost purposely avoiding those elements that are intuitive to her music, while at times also including production decisions that straight up poison the well with the same independent country audiences we all believed this album was set up to appeal to, like the finger snaps and “ooh-oohs” of the otherwise well-written song “Last Cigarette,” or the senseless electronic drums at the start and refrain of the title track.

None of this sullies the songwriting performance of Reckless, which at times is spectacular, even if some other moments feel a little burdened with lazy rhymes. But even on the songwriting front which is the strength of the record, there’s decisions to second guess. It was original songs by Morgan Wade like “The Night” and “Left Me Behind” that lit the spark behind her through engaging live acoustic performances. These were the songs that built the buzz behind her. But those songs didn’t make it on this record, while others that are probably not as good did.

Perhaps the calculus here was those songs that created the sharp appeal for Morgan Wade were already worn out by the audience because they’ve become so popular, or perhaps the idea is to hold them back for the next session in the studio. But those decisions mean Reckless is not Morgan Wade putting her best foot forward on this important debut. Instead of centering more around her songs of working through personal struggles which helped swell much of the interest behind Morgan, Reckless is more a series of love songs.

This is one of those instances where there is a lot of negative to say about an album that overall still results in a positive experience and outcome. If we had been sold Morgan Wade as an Americana artist and this album had landed in our laps randomly, we would be praising the amount of grit and sweat that comes through the otherwise pallid production, and focusing much more on the songs themselves. Again, it’s not just that the record is not country. It’s that the production and music are just not very imaginative, and don’t seem to fulfill the narrative Morgan Wade sets with her countenance and her original compositions.

We shouldn’t assume this album wasn’t the outcome Morgan Wade was aiming for. Part of the issue might be what everyone else envisioned when hearing her perform acoustically just wasn’t what Morgan Wade had envisioned for herself. Still, when you have No Depression saying the album “brings a new voice and vitality to Outlaw Country,” it sets a style expectation that Reckless just can’t fulfill. You’ll still see a ton of praise for Reckless. It’s one of those buzzed-about records. But some of that will be praising the artist they fell in love with on YouTube, and not the record they were delivered.

Nonetheless, you listen to tracks like “Mend,” “Take Me Away,” and the final song “Met You,” and you understand what all the buzz is about. Morgan Wade is that great songwriter that drips authenticity, and that very well could rise from the ranks of independent artists to disrupt the mainstream. That is why it’s worth discussing her music so in-depth. And for a first chapter, Reckless is not bad. It’s just by the end, you get a sense the best of Morgan Wade could still be yet to come.

(7/10)

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