Though much of Kenny Chesney’s career has been built on songs about beach life, his last two albums, 2012’s Welcome to the Fishbowl and 2010’s Hemingway’s Whiskey, did a fair amount of veering slightly away from that, if never completely, carving out both anthemic and moody places not as connected to the sun and sand. Those albums might be good proof that he’s not a one-note artist. Then again, he more often seems perfectly happy being one-note, at least if that means spending time with his favorite beach tropes. On Life on a Rock he’s 100% back on the islands, continuing to carve it out as his niche. But when it comes to beach music, is Chesney trying to be the country genre’s Jimmy Buffett, a lovable beach bum partier? Or Bob Marley, some kind of spiritual guru? Are islands for him a place to draw wisdom from the exotic natives? A place to escape into fantasy? A place to spend more time with your memories, with your ghosts, with all of the pained voices that run through our minds? All of this and more.
For a mainstream country album released in 2013, Life on a Rock shows Chesney to be significantly less interested in the formats and styles of current radio hits than his peers. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a few radio hits here. I can just about bet money on a radio edit of “When I See This Bar” being omnipresent sometime this year. But most of it exists in its own world, in Chesneyland. The biggest exception is the leadoff track, and first single, “Pirate Flag”, one of two songs here not written or co-written by Chesney himself. It’s another celebration of the carefree side of beach life, but set within a vaguely hard rock frame that seems a result of Jason Aldean’s success with tougher versions of something similar.
Chesney’s ideal life here involves “a pirate flag and an island girl”. The Confederate flag of the islands, perhaps? Or at least a symbol that only works as a source of pride if you ignore the tragic history it represents — or tragic present, for that matter. Pirates for Chesney exist as another piece of beach mythology, no doubt, not as something you’ll see in international newspaper headlines. The “island girl” is mythology too — so many of his beach songs, and those of his followers, contain the storyline where the hardened man on the run settles in a lonely beach town and weds, or at least beds, an exotic native girl. They spend their time on the beach or at the nearest drinking establishment. “Here we are at a local bar / drinking shooting stars,” he sings. That sounds super-poetic to me until I realize a shooting star is probably some kind of alcoholic shot that I’m not familiar with; then I get a completely different beach-life image, of frat boys on Spring Break.
To say Chesney romanticizes the beach would be to state the most obvious thing in the world. Musically this album emulates that romanticization, by achieving a uniquely relaxed beach-bum vibe. It’s his sunniest album in a while, and one of his most consistent in sound. Some of the songs seem to grow out of that mood naturally. Like of course Willie Nelson shows up to sing with Chesney about getting higher than a coconut tree (“Coconut Tree”). Of course there’s a laid back song about sunsets (“It’s That Time of Day”). At the same time, this surface is deceptive, as is paradise in general. The title song “Life on a Rock” offers a vision of island life as a nonstop happy hour, but also one where the participants are a ragtag bunch of sad, lost people.
Chesney’s persona here is generally that of a lost soul who’s found a place where he can pull the sunset-colored wool over his eyes. Or not. The beach ultimately is also a place where he can confront the ghosts of his past. The six-minute “When I See This Bar” is one of the best examples of this. For a second you think it’s just another “what a bar” song, like Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar”, but then you realize that it’s a much sadder version of that. “I see the souls of so many friends,” he starts. When he enters this bar, he sees not just the faces of people who remind him of other lost souls he’s known over time (“some are still living the dream / stuck in still life it seems”), not just the faces in his mind of people who he’s known in that bar who are no longer here, not just the faces of departed friends from similar bars he’s known, but also his own past selves: the boy becoming a man, the heartbroken man who needs to run away. What could be mistaken for a textbook bar song becomes a layered depiction of the force of the past. Behind it also is the loneliness of living in a transitional place, the islands, where people are always moving to and from paradise. Of course, life is a transitional place itself, and the song acknowledges that. When, at the end, he sings “I wonder where we go from here,” it has multiple meanings.
Ghosts abound on Life on a Rock. There’s “Lindy”, the old, possibly homeless, possibly mentally unstable man who Chesney admires as “the salt of the earth”, another of those wise, Yoda-like island mentors that tend to pop up in Chesney songs. And then there’s the ghost of Bob Marley, one of Chesney’s idols. On his 2008 album Lucky Old Sun Chesney teamed with Marley’s Wailers for the somewhat stilted single “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”. They’re back on this album for “Spread the Love”. When Chesney starts the song with a Marley-esque “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah”, it’s hard not to cringe. He doesn’t stand in for Marley well. But the more he tries, and the more he atypically softens his voice, the more it starts to make some kind of sense, and his good-vibrations mantras flirt with Marley’s universal love, and sound less like a frat-house call for life to be a nonstop party.
Chesney’s version of universal love is cute-cuddly Marley. Though he’s trying to project positive feelings, when he sings “ain’t nobody can tell us that this planet is falling apart,” it can’t help but come off as ignorant, especially considering how prominently he’s put the ocean into our minds as an image. It starts giving a sinister, colonist vibe to even the well-intentioned chorus “spread the love all over the world.” History and science, it seems, are not Chesney’s strongest subjects.
“Marley” the song is a piano-laden love song not to Marley but to the idea of listening to Marley with a drink in your hand next to the beach. It’s about his desire to be alone, essentially. He believes in “one love bigger than you and me,” and his best day is one where he can think about that without too many people around.
Life on a Rock ultimately seems less like a beach party album than Chesney stretching out with his ghosts. The last song, “Happy on the Hey Now (A Song for Kristi)”, is a tribute to a friend of a friend who passed away. He saw her dance once, and he’ll never forget that. Laden in that story is his tendency for romanticizing the past, his worship of people he sees as free spirits, his sentimental attachment to youth and the fact that the major theme of his career has been memory. “You will never die,” he repeats to her, because he never forgets anything.