Country music often thrives off despair. One of this year’s best albums, Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, dives deep in the depths of it. Other best-selling 2008 country albums, like Alan Jackson’s Good Time, for example, are more carefree on the surface, but less certain if you listen closer. I won’t say that Trace Adkins’ X, his tenth album, has no worry or loneliness in it, sure it does. But Adkins’ persona here is confident and even optimistic. Confidence has always been a big part of his personality as a star, for sure. There’s a blog devoted to pictures of him shirtless, after all, and he wrote a book titled A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck. But here he’s seldom in-your-face about anything. His tough-guy persona has some thoughtfulness to it, and smoothness. And he matches his own confident singing with music that’s at least as confident. X is a headstrong album and enjoyable for it. It’s marked by consistency in songwriting and performing. It’s a comfortable album that never slips away, that breezes by while standing tall.
X opens with a swagger on “Sweet”, as he takes his mother’s wish for him to settle down with a sweet girl and responds with his own modern definition of “sweet”. With a growl in his voice, singing with a wicked grin on his face, he paints a picture of a naughtier girl than his mom no doubt was referring to and then finishes off the song cleverly by quoting Def Leppard—“pour some sugar on me”. The second song, “Happy to Be Here”, takes that swagger and turns it upwards, into a power-anthem, a sure-fire radio hit. At the same time, the song has a humble optimism which fits its big, crashing hook well. It’s a song of devotion and thanks, to a lover and to God, but more importantly its sincerity doesn’t hold back the song’s upward push or the punch packed by the chorus. Those two songs set the tone for the album, which balances Adkins’ sense of humor with a more serious side, while exuding contentment all the while.
On “Better Than I Thought It’d Be”, over tough rock guitars he playfully acknowledges the rough side of life while trying to look at the bright side, through a series of anecdotes like “I toss and turn half the night / But the other half I sleep all right”. That song’s backstory is loneliness, but he’s having a joke with it. Similarly, “Hillbilly Rich” and “Marry for Money” point the laughs at the place where everybody hurts: the wallet.
Those songs are fun, especially the mock-triumphant “Marry for Money” (as in, “I’m gonna marry for money / I’ll be so damn rich it ain’t funny”). Fun too is the love song/truck-driving anthem “Hauling One Thing”. But some of X’s best songs are ballads. There’s a fine ballad of prayer, “All I Ask for Anymore”, another song of humility. It feels related in a way to both “Happy to Be Here” and the album’s first single, the dramatic baptism/rebirth song “Muddy Water”.
There’s one sexy ballad, “Let’s Do That Again”, which, come to think of it, could be used as a good comparison point between this album as Jackson’s Good Time, putting it next to that album’s song “Nothing Left to Do”. In Jackson’s song, a couple has nothing left to do after they’ve done it. In Adkins’ song, doing it just makes you want to do it again.
There’s also one political ballad of sorts, the soldiers’ tribute “Til the Last Shot’s Fired”. Its call for peace, for soldiers to lay down their guns, but only after “the last shot’s fired”, makes more emotional sense than logical sense—how can shots stop being fired if soldiers are still shooting? But Adkins’ singing on it is strong, purposefully not too overbearing. And it has one of the album’s most surprising moments, when the West Point Cadet Choir comes in to sing the chorus once more from the perspective of soldiers both dead and alive. It’s surprising, but still a bit much.
Even better than any of those is “I Can’t Outrun You”, the song where his singing really brings down the house. It’s the album’s one song of deep yearning, an emotional love song where he keeps running away from her but his heart never will. “It’s like your ghost is chasing me, when I’m awake / When I’m asleep / There’s a part of you in every part of me”, he sings. What makes the song stand out is Adkins’ performance of it. His singing is surprisingly sensitive, even gentle, but with the same strength he musters up for the more tough-guy cowboy songs. It helps that the arrangement is surprisingly spare—simple piano and strings, not even close to being bombastic, a rarity for country ballads but also for ballads in general. A performance like this would be a show-stopper for any vocalist of any genre, and it is one.
On the rest of the album the strength of his singing is less evident; it never makes your jaw drop while you’re listening. But it’s a key reason this album is so enjoyable. He carries all of these songs along, seemingly without effort. The album’s last pair of songs—“Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink” (and sometimes a drink takes a man) and the baptism song “Muddy Water” (“there’s a man in me I need to drown”)—together tell stories of strength and weakness, tough times and change. X mostly feels like just a really solid collection of songs, some light and some lighter, but these two songs point to an underlying theme throughout the album of changed men and unchanged men. Adkins himself stands tall in the middle of it, but also with a sense of ease.
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