Kenny Chesney heads to the beach to find himself.
Kenny Chesney is vacationing on a tropical island for his new album Lucky Old Sun. The inside, would-be gatefold cover shows a photo of him sitting on the beach playing the guitar, with palm trees and an improbably perfect sunset behind him. The back cover shows Chesney’s fishing boat in the water, and on the beach his chair -- the old blue chair of his similarly themed 2005 album Be As You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair). This is a ‘beach album’, but a particularly dour one. Here the beach is not about non-stop fun in the sun. It’s a place to take your earthly troubles and, hopefully, let them wash away with the tide. Or as Chesney puts it on the second song, “Way Down Here”, “if I’m gonna be down / gonna be down / way down here.”
The problems Chesney, or his protagonist, is running away from are barely spelled out, though he’s publicly talked about this album being about his brief marriage to actress Renee Zellweger. The most specific lyrics, like one on “Boats” where a man says goodbye to his wife with the line “it’s been real but it ain’t been fun”, startle a bit, since mostly he goes for a general sense of being down in the dumps, a general mood of brooding.
The sentiment that opens the LP, on a song that Willie Nelson also finely sang on the 2008 Buddy Cannon/Kenny Chesney-produced Moment of Forever album, is ‘at least I’m alive, that’s all that matters’. It sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. The music’s feeling isn’t realized contentment but uncertainty. The most sure line, one that represents the album’s reached-for theme, is sung not by Chesney but by guest Dave Matthews: “it’s good for the soul / when there’s not a soul in sight.”
Even the songs that are most about living the easy island life feel unsettled, even anxious. In “The Life”, Chesney admires the easy-going life of Jose, a Mexican fisherman, who doesn’t have to worry about things like buying a big house or trying to stay atop the Billboard charts. The most prominent character in the song is the idealized Jose, but the dominant viewpoint is envy, rooted in personal dissatisfaction.
The songs with the most specific island references are really about Chesney and his wish for a change, more than the setting. Along with “The Life”, there’s “Keys in the Conch Shell”, an overtly Jimmy Buffett-esque number where Chesney has his own place on an island but never has the time to actually be there. On “Boats” he’s obsessed with, of course, boats, but really it’s with what they represent, inartfully put like this in the chorus: “boats / vessels of freedom / harbors of healing / boats.”
Many of Chesney’s big hits and best songs have projected a sense of ease, in performance or content: think “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service”. The sound of this album is ease (check out that easy-listening sax solo during “Way Down Here”, a soft-pop ballad), but the songs are filled with a general sense of the opposite. Two of the best songs musically go furthest to project absolute, un-fussy ease, even though the characters are not necessarily at rest. The success of “Down the Road”, written by Mac McAnally, comes perhaps partly because it altogether exits the islands and Chesney’s quest for post-love peace (his Forgetting Sarah Marshall plot line), for a tale of young lovers and their cautious parents. In the context of Lucky Old Sun, it’s a mental trip backwards in time, nostalgic about love; a dream of an alternate life that sounds dreamy enough itself. Dreamy too is “Spirit of a Storm”, a tale of inner turmoil and the search for “peace of mind” that in tone more clearly resembles a momentary sense of peace, healing but sure to pass. The tone of it is almost somnambulistic. He’s walking asleep, ready to hibernate under the sun. Similar is his duet with Willie Nelson on the standard “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)”, where the emphasis is on the wish of having nothing to do, like the sun, instead of on the toil of the working man who’s singing the song.
The near-sleep feeling of these songs could easily be equated to dull-ness, but it’s instead a very particular feeling, Chesney’s own distinct slant on ‘island living’. Still, the songs with the most overt ‘island sound’ -- steel drums, for example -- are obvious attempts to liven, and lighten, the album up. “Ten With a Two”, a one-night-stand song built on wordplay (waking up at 10 am with a woman who’s a ‘2’, though she looked like a ‘10’ at 2 am), is meant to be fun. But Chesney has too much gravity or sleep in his voice. He sounds almost like a zombie, weighed down not just by the horn section but by something bigger, maybe the burden of living up to the ideal of the island: the vacationer’s quandary. The song’s out-of-fashion sexual politics in the context of a post-break-up album begs for some deeper analysis, but as a liven-things-up track it doesn’t do the job.
As a beach album, Lucky Old Sun is remarkably little fun. The closest to fun may be the first single, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, with the Wailers. Yet this fun is more like a lazy late-night beachfront campfire jam, the Wailers unrecognizable from the other jammers in the dark. The “not today” sentiment that concludes the title pairs up perhaps well with “Just Not Today”, off his last album Just Who I Am. But that song had the structure and emotional hook of a great radio single, more than this one. (Similarly, no song on this album exemplifies escape from everyday drudgery as well as that album’s George Strait duet “Shiftwork”.) Both songs take that ‘live life to the fullest while you’ve got the chance’ angle, though on Lucky Old Sun he mostly seems ready to slip away from life. Chesney’s version of island living seems mostly about going where no one knows his name, where there’s no pressure. It’s about vacationing in his own head, trying to figure himself out. Or as one song title phrases it, of trying to attain the status of having “Nowhere to Go, Nowhere to Be”. Of disappearing…