Album Review – Morgan Wallen’s “One Thing At A Time”

photo: Ryan Smith

Love him, hate him, find yourself among the population of the very few who feel indifferent about him, Morgan Wallen is the biggest thing in mainstream country, and at this point, by such multiples of scale, it truly is difficult to comprehend. We’re talking Garth-level, generational, genre-defying, era-defining popularity that has put him at the very top of all popular music.

No mater what anyone may think about this new album, it will be the #1 record in country music for the next two years. And the only thing that will dethrone it is another Morgan Wallen album. It is likely to be the biggest release in country music in the last 25 years. It very well may ultimately be the biggest album released in country music ever. Morgan Wallen is mainstream country music in 2023, and his new 36-song album One Thing At A Time in many ways reflects that. Whereas other artists find their niche in country and serve that audience, Morgan Wallen looks to be all things to all people.

Right now the hottest thing in mainstream country music is actual country music. Maybe you’ve pigeon-holed Morgan Wallen and believe his popularity refutes that. But you would be incorrect. One Thing At A Time has just as much, if not more traditional country on it than some of the latest albums from artists who specialize in being neotraditional revivalists.

Of course on the radio, neotraditional country still struggles for attention with the more hip-hop inspired Bro-Country sounds of 808 machine beats and rapped lyrics. One Thing At A Time has a whole selection of those songs too. Yet since the mainstream is slowly moving away from that sound and has opened an avenue for more country-sounding and sensible tracks indicative of artists such as Luke Combs and Parker McCollum, Morgan Wallen and One Thing At A Time have plenty of those songs too.

The album even has one or two of those superbly-written songs that sometimes steer independent and Americana fans into the mainstream space. Morgan Wallen and One Thing At A Time are like their own genre, and it’s starkly evident of all the styles that congeal to create the mainstream country format. It’s just that one artist is fulfilling them all, finding a space on a myriad of playlists, and appeal with a wide population of listeners. Whatever type of contemporary country they appreciate, Morgan Wallen has them covered.

Morgan Wallen isn’t just dominating mainstream country, he’s monopolizing it. As we sit here, Morgan Wallen not only has the top two albums in the genre with the next closest competition (Zach Bryan) being so far behind he could sell 3x more and still lose, Morgan Wallen owns the first 16 slots on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 36 of the top 42. It’s Morgan Wallen’s world in mainstream country, and everyone else is just living in it.

None of this is a commentary on quality of the music itself of course. It’s also not a commentary on Morgan Wallen’s character, which is where commentary on Morgan Wallen’s music regularly turns. But since this project is so mountainous, let’s stick to the music, be objective and judicious, evaluate the music irrespective of opinions upon misdeeds or desires to see the mainstream of country be depreciated by traditional and independent fans. Because in truth, the album give us enough deleterious moments to criticize.

Since there are so many tracks here and compartmentalizing it all in your brain at once is next to impossible, One Thing At A Time was broken down by song, with the overall score being averaged out among the individual tracks. Morgan Wallen made this decision easy because this album really doesn’t have any theme or arc, so it’s not a scenario where the pieces equal something greater than the sum of their parts. If anything, the album might deserve to have some points shaved off for being so directionless.

And ultimately, this is the problem when considering One Thing At A Time and Morgan Wallen as a whole. When you’re trying to be all things to all people like Wallen and producer Joey Moi did here, you fail to master any one theme or sound. The album has a surprising amount of steel guitar on it. It also has enough electronic drum beats to scare most steel guitar lovers away. In moments Morgan Wallen seems to show a level of contriteness and self-introspection, but then he barrels you over with self-aggrandizing Bro-Country bluster. He’s not really a singer as much as a mumbler. But emotionless mumbling is kind of the thing modern listeners want.

One Thing At A Time really isn’t an an album. It’s a wide collection of songs to seed streaming markets with enough Morgan Wallen material to tide over listeners for the next two years. And though it has its positive merits and moments, it ultimately speaks to why Morgan Wallen may have all the popularity, but when it comes to quality, he’s middle of the pack.

OVERALL SCORE: 4.875 out of 10

(album score averaged from song scores below)

1. Born with a Beer in My Hand – 8.5 – Great start off to the record. Undeniably a country song with a great theme and story that’s very personal to Morgan Wallen, and speaks about how behavioral patterns are often generational, and a lot harder to break than some want to make them out to be. This is Wallen at his best.

2. Last Night – 3 – Monotone, metrosexual take on “country” with cliche lyrics and little life to it. Great as a radio single in a bad way, but with no other use.

3. Everything I Love – 7 – Super twangy song that proves you can’t pigeon hole Morgan simply as a 2nd generation Bro-Country singer. The issue with the song is the writing that is littered with radio buzzwords and doesn’t really go anywhere important other than down a dirt road in a truck.

4. Man Made A Bar (with Eric Church) – 7 – This song really typifies the “sometimes good, never great, often bad” nature of Morgan Wallen. The idea for the song is decent. The steel guitar helps sell it. But still, with a bit more time in the oven, it could have been so much better than the “okay” results. The Autotune is especially pronounced on this track, and it holds back the otherwise decent effort.

5. Devil Don’t Know – 8.5 – Excellent song written by Ben Stennis, Jared Mullins, and Travis Denning. Great execution with solid steel guitar on an undeniably country track. Morgan Wallen at his absolute best. Only thing holding in back from a 10 is the same thing holding so many of these tracks back: an unimaginative, lazy, and distracting electronic drum track underpinning important parts of the song.

6. One Thing At A Time – 3 – Terrible yacht rock production and guitar tone doesn’t compliment one of the way too many bar/club relationship/breakup songs that could have been culled from this album.

7. ’98 Braves – 8 – Another undeniably country song with prominent steel guitar, and the premise of this song is a good one. Wallen’s tendency to sing too many words in too short of a frame often suffocates otherwise quality writing. Solid album cut that writers John Byron, Josh Miller, Travis Wood should be proud of.

8. Ain’t That Some – 2 – Straight up hick-hop track that ironically employs actual drums instead of 808 beats. Horrifically cliche lyrics, with Wallen singing at one point, “I know it’s cliche to sing Chevrolets, cold beers, and Fridays.” But calling out the cliche doesn’t make it not cliche. It took four people to write this garbage, but the right audience will find it fun.

9. I Wrote The Book – 2 – Possibly the greatest example on the album of how really derivative electronic drum beats tank what might have been a decent song if it was rendered with more country production. You can tell without looking this was co-written by Hardy in the way it tries to be clever, but it’s only really clever for pop country.

10. Tennessee Numbers – 5 – Very mid all the way around, in arrangement, music, and writing. One of the songs that makes you question why we needed 36 tracks when this doesn’t really accomplish anything for either the country fans, or the contemporary tractor rap fans.

11. Hope That’s True – 4.5 – Another forgettable song in a run of them on the track list that tries to bring a little bit of island-sounding production to mediocre writing with a hook that doesn’t sink.

12. Whiskey Friends – 4 – What a mess. Quintessential “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation where six songwriters hash out a directionless track that tries too hard and ultimately bogs down in buzzwords and a whiskey reference. The bar/breakup songs on this album are so prevalent, they create their own little cliche universe for each other.

13. Sunrise – 1.5 – Straight up hip-hop style pop song that has no business on an album from any self-respecting “country” artist. Sure, combining “you keep coming up” about a past lover with the sun cycle shows a little smarts. But this is no “Something in the Orange.”

14. Keith Whitley – 5.5 – One of the most prevalent songwriting tropes in all forms of country music at the moment is taking the titles from a country legend’s catalog and incorporating them into a new cut. Perhaps it was cool 20 years ago, but now listeners can see it coming from miles away. Among some true country fans, this track is one of the most controversial of the album. They’re incensed Morgan Wallen would name drop Keith Whitley. But it’s just another middle-of-the-pack offering from the album, even if it sounds pretty country, and like a surprising amount of songs from the album, features steel guitar.

15. In The Bible (feat. HARDY) – 3 – A bad and dated Bro-Country song that tries to be meaningful by mentioning The Bible, but can’t even rhyme the chorus. Saved from being a complete abomination by organic instrumentation.

16. You Proof – 2 – Possibly the best example of why some traditional country folks who came to the defense of Morgan Wallen and counted themselves in his fandom simply because he became persona non grata in the media after the N-word incident need to understand that this guy still should be considered problematic for some of the music he releases. This is the biggest radio single from this album so far, and it’s an abomination of snap and click tracks, and terrible hip-hop phrasing brought to bad writing. Just no.

17. Thought You Should Know – 7.5 – One of the better songs on the album, one of the more country songs on the album (it’s about mama), and a worthy and welcomed radio single. Co-written by Miranda Lambert. Only shade to throw has to do with how many words are fit into too small of a space, which is a recurring problem with this album. Wallen shouts out “Thought you should know, thought you should know, thought you should know” so rapidly, it bleeds the emotion out of the track instead of letting some space and time allow the emotion to flourish. This song either needed to be even slower, have some words culled out, or both to do it proper justice.

18. F150-50 – 2 – Don’t fall for this cliche truck song trying to pass itself off as clever. The writing on this one is downright embarrassing. Leave this weak shit for the Mitchell “Bitches” Tenpennys of the world.

19. Neon Star (Country Boy Lullaby) – 2.5 – Snap track nothingness that once again tries to weave a compelling story out of sitting in a bar with a broken heart. Yes, that’s an eternal country music theme, but one or two per album will suffice, and this song isn’t country.

20. I Deserve A Drink – 7.5 – Pretty good song, and one that can play off of Morgan Wallen’s personal narrative in a way that means more coming from him, which is something this album generally lacks. Not surprised to see Hillary Lindsey in the credits. The waltz beat shakes up the rhythm of this album, and the country sound is welcomed.

21. Wine Into Water – 4 – If you’re going to have 36 tracks on an album, you can’t have pedestrian tracks like this. At least some of the more polarizing country rap tracks will find an audience who appreciates them. The attempt to exploit religious dichotomies on this album generally fall flat, while the lyrical hook is just not landing. A better idea would have been turning wine into water through tears as opposed to trying to wrangle it into another colloquialism of “water under the bridge.” Another song that works really hard to say nothing.

22. Me + All Your Reasons – 5 – This song struggles to make its point, lyrically and sonically. It yearns to be one of the deeper tracks on the record, but like so many songs with 4+ songwriters, fails to feel personal, or in this case, coherent.

23. Tennessee Fan – 6 – Mildly entertaining pop country song that SEC fans will enjoy, even if they hate Tennessee. Not as clever as “’98 Braves,” but not entirely offensive.

24. Money On Me – 8 – A well-written song that marries Morgan Wallen’s real world struggles with music that’s country enough. If this album had been comprised of more songs like this, it would have felt so much more honest and personal.

25. Thinkin’ Bout Me – 1.5 – Ugh. Yet another drinking/breakup song, and this one comes with an especially immature perspective rooted in emotionally under-developed jealousy. The click track makes the song even worse. It’s not just the electronic rhythms on this album, it’s the lack of imagination brought to them.

26. Single Than She Was – 6 – This is not a good song, but it’s not as bad as it may seem on first listen. Sure, a song about trying to steal away someone’s girlfriend may boil the blood, but it’s also true to life. Plus the music is mostly inoffensive country pop that builds out from a steel guitar riff. Not terrible.

27. Days The End In Why – 5 – Yet another immediately forgettable song that tries to be clever, but doesn’t really land the hook like it thinks it does. If you’re going to release an album of 36 songs and rely on so many co-writers and contributors, why include fat that could be trimmed like this?

28. Last Drive Down Main – 6 – One of the few more rock-oriented tracks of the album, and one that evokes nostalgia, which unlike other themes, is not over-exploited by Morgan Wallen and this album. Not a country track, but a fun one that successfully calls to mind the emotions of a breakup.

29. Me To Me – 3.5 – Cocksure Bro-Country track with radio buzzy lyrics. There are worse songs on the album, but don’t take that to mean it’s good. The best part about this song is it’s only 2 minutes long, because that’s about all it can handle.

30. – Don’t Think Jesus – 8.5 – Perhaps the best song on the album, and co-written by Jessi Alexander. It once again taps into Morgan Wallen’s real-world struggles in a way that makes the song much more personal that the rest, even though he didn’t write it. But the big problem with the song is one of the big problems with Morgan Wallen: he’s just not a great singer. The monotone verses just make for a deflating listening experience, despite the quality writing and emotion-laden chorus.

31. – 180 (Lifestyle) – 0 – Far and away the worst song on the album, and perhaps the worst song of Morgan Wallen’s career. And no, not just because it’s the most hip-hop sounding, non-country track of the set. The premise is a bad take on Alan Jackon’s “Gone Country.” It’s songs like this that detractors can point to and render all of the good songs from Morgan Wallen inconsequential.

32. Had It – 5 – Another song that gets really close to hitting on something wise and resonant, but gets lost in the weeds of trying to express it. Though it wants to be reflective and honest from the perspective of letting a lover go when they know it’s the end and not wanting to waste any more time, the “had it” tag actually conveys give up as opposed to empathy, or even worse, a “been there, done that attitude” that is degrading.

33. Cowgirls (feat. ERNEST) – 0 – For many years at certain honky tonks, DJs and bartenders would turn on hip-hop music after the country band left the stage so that the girls in cutoffs and boots would get out on the dance floor and keep the guys ordering drinks. A song like “Cowgirls” fulfills that purpose, just from a supposed “country” artist. It may have a practical application. But as a “song” it’s pretty pathetic.

34. Good Girl Gone Missin’ – 7.5 – Once again, when Morgan Wallen finds a way to incorporate the “bad boy” persona that is at the heart of his appeal into songs that express vulnerability and reflection, this is when he connects with something deeper than his detractors and even some of his fans give him credit for. The adult contemporary production of this track holds it back a bit, but it’s not bad.

35. Outlook – 7.5 – Finishing strong with a Morgan Wallen co-write that shows some humility, and touches on a theme that many of the better songs on the album touch on: Moving on from past mistakes, and believing in something bigger than yourself. The rapid fire nature of the lyricism though keeps this song from being as intimate and emotional as it could be.

36. Dying Man – 8 – Rolling Stone said about this album that it’s “a lot of partying, but not much introspection.” A quick listen would conclude this. Digging deep into the material and listening through to the last three songs proves why this is untrue. And even when Morgan Wallen songs sound like a party, they’re usually about breakups, not partying.

“Dying Man” is not great. It’s saddled with the cliche buzzwords that burden many of Morgan Wallen’s songs. But that doesn’t mean it’s not introspective. Morgan Wallen is a simple man. And even if he struggles sometimes to truly get deep, that doesn’t mean he’s entirely shallow.

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