The song “Outlook” comes 35 tracks into Morgan Wallen’s behemoth of a new 36-track album, which means that by the time you finally get to it, you’re pretty much primed for whatever knowledge he’s hard-earned. And for the first few lines of the song about “20/20 Hindsight vision,” it’s clear where the country star is headed: Two years after he was caught on video drunkenly using the N-word to refer to a friend — an incident that sparked widespread debate about country music’s historical relationship to race — the beginning of “Outlook” suggests that Wallen has given some serious thought to how he sees the world and his place in it.
Then the chorus hits.
“Now my view on life is different than it used to be,” he sings over an acoustic guitar, “My view is: Someone’s up there looking down and looking at me.”
Wallen’s realization of white male privilege, in other words, is that it feels like a blessing.
Which of course has happened. “Dangerous,” Wallen’s 2021 double LP, endured a brief moment of backlash to become that year’s biggest album of any genre, and at least three advance cuts from the new project, “One Thing at a Time.” are currently at the top. 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart, including the sultry “Last Night,” which just hit its third week at No. 1. Thanks to expected big numbers on Spotify and the like, “One Thing at a Time” will It’s almost certain to debut at the top of the Billboard 200 as Wallen prepares to embark on what is sure to be one of the year’s most lucrative US headlining tours. (He’ll play at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium on July 22.)
At a time when streaming and TikTok have decentralized the music business, reducing the power of its old gatekeepers, the only vote that matters is the people’s vote, and they’ve clearly rallied behind Wallen. Indeed, it is not so much someone above who saved him from destruction but the millions of devoted people here on Earth.
The question about the new album, then, is how Wallen makes use of his privilege.
You might be wondering why (or if) he should think about it at all. By multiple accounts — including those of prominent black artists like country singer Darius Rucker and rapper Lil Durk, with whom Wallen cut the 2021 duet “Broadway Girls” — the 29-year-old singer is not racist. He has arguably benefited from a system based on racism, yes, but in that he is no different than countless other white entertainers, politicians and businessmen.
In these thirty songs, however, Wallen continues to believe that he has made serious mistakes and learned valuable lessons. he’s clearly aware of his perceived need to atone for what he’s done – “One Thing at a Time” isn’t a snarky, baby-rock denunciation of the encroachments of cancellation culture – yet he constantly stops short of showing any real introspection. The result is something of a paradox: an album burdened by an obligation it refuses to shoulder.
Which would be easier to reconcile if Wallen didn’t occasionally wade into the culture-war fray in real life, such as when he accepted an invitation to perform at a recent inauguration celebration for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who this week signed a controversial bill restricting drag shows in Wallen’s hometown. Such political activism obliterates an artist’s reasonable expectation that their music is considered non-political.
But another mark of Wallen’s privilege is that he was granted this leeway. So what should you notice about “One Thing at a Time” other than the fact that it avoids difficult issues that few in its audience want to address? It’s too long, for starters, though that goes without saying in a streaming economy whose set-it-and-forget-it ethos has also inspired marathon LPs from the likes of Zach Bryan and Luke Combs.
Wallen said the album’s 36 tunes fit into three groups: traditional country songs, hip-hop-inspired songs, and songs in a style he calls “dirt rock” that stems from the revivalist heartlandisms of the ’80s. of Killers and the War. for drugs. And there are certainly standout examples of each, like “Everything I Love,” which lays lush vocal harmonies over a galloping beat à la classic Alabama. the pulsating “180 (Lifestyle),” which interjects elements of Rich Gang, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s “Lifestyle.” and “Whiskey Friends,” which borrows the central riff from “Mr. Brightside.”
But most of the rest blur together for nearly two hours in a sound that triangulates these styles nicely. the typical Morgan Wallen song combines country, rap, and rock in a similar way to the typical Post Malone song (albeit in slightly different proportions). His skill as a singer – and he’s among the most skilled in Nashville – is the flexibility of his voice, which can move from growl to scream in just a few lines. Sometimes he does both in the same line, as in “Money on Me,” an account of his tendency to disappoint, where he captures a mixture of shame and pride as he tells a potential lover, “Honestly, I wouldn’t put my money on me.”
His flow has become more intense than it was on “Dangerous”. he’s capable of handling harder beats, like on the hard-hitting “Me + All Your Reasons” and “Good Girl Gone Missin,” which places fast staccato phrases between folk guitars. And his vocal chops on a song like “Keith Whitley,” named after the late country singer, have an appealing rawness even at their most nimble.
Because “One Thing at a Time” is so uniform in its sound, what elevates any given tune is the song’s depth and specificity, for which Wallen, a gifted writer, enlisted the help of dozens of Nashville professionals, including of his longtime friends. Hardy and Earnest along with Miranda Lambert, Hilary Lindsey and Ryan Heard. (One way to ensure your re-embrace by the country establishment: Become one of Music Row’s most trusted employers.)
The least interesting songs here are the ones about self-destruction and the search for redemption, not only because they skirt the specifics of Wallen’s reputation, but because they wallow in regrettable clichés—a failure of both courage and taste. Much livelier are sex-related numbers like “Last Night” (“I kiss your lips / make you finger the sheets”) and songs about lost love like “Tennessee Numbers,” in which she remembers his photo and an ex that served as the lock screen on her phone.
“’98 Braves” and “Tennessee Fan” use clever sports imagery in romantic stories, and “Thought You Should Know” addresses the singer’s mother with touching intimacy. Then again, once he tells her about his new girlfriend and they laugh about the “stupid things” his dad has done, he informs his mom that “all those prayers you thought you were wasting on me must have finally come through.” Another problem solved.