Missouri’s state fish is the channel catfish. Its state animal is the Missouri mule. Its state bird is the bluebird. Its state reptile is the three-toed box turtle.
All of those facts are more interesting than David Nail’s song “Missouri”, which closes out his debut album, I’m About to Come Alive. The song starts out promising, with a laid-back front-porch mood and him setting this vivid scene: “November’s almost over / the chill of winter’s on the way / still I sit here on the balcony / and smoke my brain away”. But the crux of it turns out to be pronouncing Missouri “misery”, something that’s been done before, subtly by Stephin Merritt and no doubt less subtly by plenty of others along the way. Here the misery is all experienced by someone else, the woman he who did wrong, who found Missouri to be such misery because of him. He prays she’ll make her way back to Georgia, out of Missouri.
Nail was born in Kennett, Missouri, in the bootheel, and has no doubt travelled far from there over the years as he’s worked towards releasing an album. His “first” album was shelved just before its release, due to a shake-up at his label. This album too has certainly been in the works for a while—at least the last two years, based on the copyright dates. In the years between his first non-album and this album he pursued a baseball career, a fact alluded to in the album’s thank-yous and inside-cover photographs.
Travelling across America and trying to find your home are themes in the songs themselves. Two of the best ones, “Mississippi” and “Again”, embody both. Though most of the album finds Nail engaged in Matchbox 20/Train sort of middlebrow balladry, “Mississippi” suggests a southern blue-eyed soul singer in an introspective mood, a new Marc Cohn, perhaps. The song uses some basic tricks to evoke a longing for home back South—bluesy piano, references to riverboats and Dixie—but his singing inhabits that milieu enough to make it alive. “Again” is more likely country-radio fodder, less regional in sound. Though the reference to a “white trash town upstate” in Missouri, not meant as a compliment, may not be too PC in country terms, it is representative of the level of detail in the song. The emotion in the sentiment “you never know which way the road is gonna go when it bends” is fed by the specificity in the verses, in its tale of leaving a small town and trying to make your way in the world.
Nail is clearly trying to make his way, and that’s the album’s chief subject. “Turning Home”, co-written by Kenny Chesney, is a hometown tribute that’s clearly sung with eyes directed at the rear-view mirror. “Summer Job Days” has a backwards look too, though the setting and story don’t fit too snugly within the album; neither does the song itself. Co-written by Gary LeVox, it strives for Rascal Flatts sort of nostalgic melodrama but seems ill-suited to Nail’s talents.
In the defiant, pop-leaning “This Time Around” (his Keith Urban moment), Nail claims to be older and wiser, but again the subtext is that he’s been searching for a while. The album title comes from Nail’s cover of Train’s “I’m About to Come Alive”, which he wears like an anthem and sings with clear intent. The shame here, though, is that too much of this album stresses the “about” in the title. Nail is a talented singer, but love it or hate it, the Nashville music industry is filled with talented singers. The songs here often feel middle-of-the-road and muddled, more like searching than success, though there are bright spots along the way.
One is the earnest “Looking for a Good Time”, written by Sean McConnell. Earnest is Nail’s main mode throughout the album, but when the production and songwriting are at their clearest, like here, he sells it well. Another is the single “Red Light”, which just might be the ticket to superstardom that Nail is seeking. In structure, the song is again tuneful but uninspired balladry, but the piece pairs its tune with a specific enough story to make the strong impression that most of the other songs fails to make. As everyday life heartbreak ballads go, this one is almost cinematic. A young couple sits in a car, waiting at a red light, on a sunny day. She turns to him, and he imagines she’s about to say “hey look at that couple kissing across the street”, or something about the weather. Instead, she breaks up with him, with finality. He’s stunned. He looks around, noticing the people and places around him but not understanding:
There’s a momma calming down a little baby
In the backseat in front of me
There’s an old man dressed in his Sunday best
Just waiting on green
But I can’t see getting past
This red light
This song represents Nail’s moment in the spotlight. Here’s hoping he makes the best of it.