Joshua Ray Walker has proven to be a skillful country singer-songwriter with strong performance chops. His first three albums skillfully presented the lives and dreams of working-class Americans with empathy and a sense of humor. After all, a dream can still be a nightmare, and not all sad stories are unhappy. Life is not funny until it is. Which leads to a discussion of Walker’s new album, which self-referentially asks, What Is It Even?
What Is It Even? features Walker performing many non-country songs, country music style. He did not write any of the tunes previously made famous by female singers. Given the three-strikes rule, Walker should be out before he begins. The stuff he’s shown himself so good at cannot be found here. Instead, this is another Walker who is at ease with Lizzo, Beyonce, Sia, and such. The artists’ original musical styles bow down to Walker’s somewhat exuberant interpretations.
Consider his take on Whitney Houston‘s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. Walker knows better than to try and out-sing Houston, who had one of the best voices in pop history. Instead, he pumps up the speed and emphasizes the urgency of the singer’s desire. He turns the word “dance” into a two-syllable plea. When Walker hits the high notes, you can feel his need. Walker takes the opposite tack on Cher‘s “Believe”. He gulps the chorus down his throat and lets the line “I don’t believe you are strong enough” lead the song. Walker doesn’t need a vocoder to convey his doubts. He lets the slight yodel in his voice do the work.
Walker also uses the same vocal effect on the Cranberries’ “Linger”. The Irish band used their Celtic accents to express the song’s emotional content. In particular, Dolores O’Riordan repeatedly pronounced the title word as a painful cry for love. Walker does this country style. One can hear the high and lonesome in his voice.
Speaking of the Irish, Walker also covers the late Sinead O’Connor‘s treatment of Prince‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U”. The instrumentation is purposely distorted to provide Walker with an unsteady foundation. This is meant to show how unsettled the singer feels now that she has been dumped. (Walker sings from the female perspective using she and he pronouns). O’Connor’s rendition is classic. Walker knows better than to compete and uses lo-fi production values to suggest his disorientation. Also, there is no hint of the sexuality oozed by Prince or the physicality of O’Connor’s version. Walker’s anguish is more mental.
Walker does cover a country song straight. He performs Dolly Parton‘s “Joshua” like an old Appalachian folk song and powerfully tells the tale of unlikely love. Walker’s low and raspy vocals here are about as different from Parton’s as the two characters in the lyrics; a rough old mountain man and a young orphan girl. Walker sings from the girl’s persona despite (or perhaps because of) his gruff and husky voice.
What Is It Even? is, well… uneven. Walker offers his take on some of pop music’s most outstanding performances and, not surprisingly, often comes up short. Still, his renditions make one think and feel the same love for the material Walker must have.