[11 September 2007]
A reasonable, measured evaluation of Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates shouldn’t dwell on the degree to which Kenny Chesney’s eleventh studio album conforms to the tried-and-true formula for success that’s earned the Knoxville, TN native millions of loyal fans. Rather, if we’re going to tackle this record on its own appealing terms and merits, why not focus on the degree to which Chesney has perfected said formula? Because, at the end of the day, this is just a really good country music collection, with a nearly flawless first half.
It’ll sell very well, of course, though it probably won’t cross over to blue state urbanites the way, say, Carrie Underwood (I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes “Before He Cheats”) and Miranda Lambert have recently. It almost certainly won’t earn many raves from rock critics who have trouble digesting country without that dubious “alt” prefix. Oh, well. Who needs ‘em? Not Chesney, who might well have the last laugh (as in, “all the way to the bank”), outselling Rolling Stone cover boys Kanye West and 50 Cent.
Just Who I Am kicks off quite nicely, with a song called “Never Wanted Nothing More”, a title ,(and implicit value-set), that stands in glaring contrast with most of the other artists who have graced, or will grace, Billboard‘s top spots this year. Sure, Kenny’s just as rich, or richer, than the rest of his chart-topping contemporaries, but he also knows his core audience well enough not to flaunt it. God knows Nashville country isn’t anti-capitalist (which would mean anti-American, duh), but it’s aggressively anti-excess, a refreshing sentiment in 2007, even if it’s partly, or mostly, target-market insight put to canny use. “I’m sure happy with what I’ve got”, Chesney sings, and he sounds at least sincere as Kanye confiding that he blew his paradise entrance-fee on a necklace (then bought more jewelry and Louis V.).
The next track, “Don’t Blink”, is a decidedly by-the-numbers live-life-in-the-present-tense track—“just like that, you’re 6 years old and you take a nap / you wake up and you’re twenty five / then your high school sweetheart becomes your wife”—but a damn good one nevertheless. It’s a slice-of-life-as-All-American-apple-pie framed as a 102 year-old man’s sage advice. This is where Chesney tests the listener’s tolerance for corn. This is a moment that should neatly separate the true believers from the “I like Johnny Cash and uh…some of the other old stuff” types. And here’s the thing: it’s actually rather touching if you let it be; if you can suspend the snark long enough to enjoy a line like “when your hourglass runs out of sand / you can’t flip it over and start again”.
“Shiftwork”, Chesney’s duet with the ever-reliable George Strait, should prove plenty easy for any listener not coasting on a hefty trust fund to appreciate. Musically, it has a Sandals resort calypso vibe, perhaps a conscious nod toward the album’s Jimmy Buffett-esque title. The chorus rhymes “7 to 3” with “3 to 11” with “11 to 7”, as Chesney and Strait weave vignettes about a “tired body in a blue collar shirt and a baseball cap / union made” and a convenience store clerk with “two feet that hurt” who’s “mad at some lad” who “drove off and didn’t pay for his gas”. As a former gas station attendant, it’s a pleasure to hear such woes illustrated, at once, sympathetically and humorously.
After that, there’s a lovely pair of songs offering different takes on growing up. The first, “Just Not Today”, is a sweet memory piece about a summer time crush on a softball player with “a pretty good arm and a real nice swing”. Someday, Chesney admits, “We’ll have to worry about things out of our control / like kids, love and money and gettin’ old /...just not today”. But, of course, real-life Kenny is a 39 year-old divorcee and, thus, “Wife and Kids” hits closer to home. Following the dissolution of his short-lived marriage to Renee Zellweger and the couple’s filing for annulment on the basis of “fraud”, Chesney admitted to Anderson Cooper, “The only fraud that was committed was me thinking that I knew what it was like… that I really understood what it was like to be married, and I really didn’t”.
Here, Chesney passionately sings, “I still dream about that look on a woman’s face / that says ‘I love you through the good, the bad, the sunshine, and the rain‘”. Apparently that woman wasn’t Bridget Jones. Perhaps, as some have coyly suggested, the love that Chesney is yearning for is the one that dare not speak its name. Either way, you take him at his word when he confesses, “Sometimes I wish I had someone to spend my life with”.
“Got a Little Crazy”, the next track, is one of the album’s highlights, an infectious brass-backed take on a drunken one-night stand (“Could I get your name again?” Chesney asks his unfamiliar bedmate the following morning), but after that, Just Who I Am takes a downhill turn. “Better As a Memory”, which includes the head-scratching, title-derived line “my only friends are pirates / it’s just who I am”, is as bland and instantly forgettable as country ballads get. “Dancin’ for the Groceries”, about a stripper, natch, lays the localized-anecdote-as-social-metaphor strategy on too heavily to buy. “Wild Ride”, featuring Joe Walsh, sounds like a Big & Rich non-keeper, and includes an off-putting robotic-squelch effect that makes you wonder if Kanye isn’t the only one listening to too much Daft Punk these days. “Scare Me” would be passably pretty if it weren’t marred by some terminally lame, and entirely superfluous, back-up singing.
Thankfully, Chesney closes his record on a high note. “Demons” might be Just Who I Am’s strongest number, and the closest rival to “Easy from Now On”, Miranda Lambert’s breathtaking Emmylou Harris cover, for country ballad of the year. Over a gorgeously spare piano and guitar framework, Chesney sings, “There’s things that I can’t leave alone / because they won’t leave me alone / what I want ain’t what I need”. It’s as revealingly heartfelt a confession as you’re likely to hear from a major star this year, made all the more poignant for Chesney’s momentary resistance of the specificity that’s typically his scrumptious bread and butter.