I haven’t always been crazy about Josh Abbott Band’s music. And to be frank, I lost quite a bit of respect for the man after he admitted to infidelity in his marriage. But when Abbott came out and said his newest album was to be a concept album about his infinitely and breakup, I was interested, merely because the idea of a concept album is interesting. You may remember my Hodgepodge about how albums as a musical art piece have become lost in this day and age. I don’t necessarily like how Abbott is using his very public admission of infidelity as a marketing springboard for this album, but I’ll set aside those personal feelings to look at the concept of Front Row Seat.
Josh Abbott lays out the songs of the album in five acts respectively titled: Exposition, Incitation, Intimacy, Dissolution, (Denouement). In sticking with the theme of a front row seat to a show, the songs are listed as “scenes” to this story. I’ll break down each act as it relates to the overall story of the album while providing basic commentary on how the songs add to the story. The songs are viewed from the lens of the album and the context they provide, and not necessarily how the songs may fair on their own. However, there are a few songs on Front Row Seat that can work well out of the album’s context, and I’ll highlight those as I approach them.
Act 1: Exposition
The first act rightfully serves as an introduction to the core couple. Since Abbott has been open about the inspiration for this album, I have no reservations characterizing this couple as Josh Abbott and his wife. The two meet at a bar (“While I’m Young”), continue to get to learn things about one another (“I’ve Been Known”), and take their physical intimacy to the next level (“Live It While You Got It”). These three songs work well as an introduction as all three are more up beat/mid tempo ready for radio country songs: you’ll hear plenty of banjo and fiddle in the production mix. And in respect to the story, each song adds a new layer to the budding relationship.
Act 2: Incitation
The second act turns the corner and details the cheating incident. “Wasn’t That Drunk” is sung as a duet with Carly Pearce, an upcoming country artist in Nashville. “Wasn’t That Drunk” is one of the stronger songs on Front Row Seat as both parties detail how even though they’d been drinking, they were both well aware of their actions and chose to get together. The following songs “Kiss You Good” and “If It Makes You Feel Good” further explain how far and passionate the affair grew. This act continues a trend of happier sounding, upbeat to mid-tempo country production within the songs. Act 3 will also continue this upbeat country trend, which is worth noting.
Act 3: Intimacy
The three scenes in Act 3 are all love songs. The title, Intimacy, speaks to an emotional intimacy felt between the characters. Within the order of songs, it’s suggested that this intimacy is between Abbott and his mistress, but I think you can make the argument that it’s between Abbott and his wife as well. The ambiguity of who the subjects are in these three songs sets the story back, which is critical as this intimacy should aid the later acts in the emotional blows. When we listen to Abbott sing about responding to the crazy love things she says (“Crazy Things”) we don’t know who ‘she’ is. As Josh Abbott raves about having a front row seat to her life and being close to her heart (“Front Row Seat”) it’s not obvious if it’s the closeness he shares with his wife, or if he and the mistress are the ones growing closer. The final scene of the chapter, “Kisses We Steal,” seems to imply that this is sung to his mistress because of the line: “Say goodbye to the secret fever, kisses we steal make me want you so much deeper.” As a core group of songs, this act does a great job establishing a loving, deep relationship. However, the lack of clarity on the female character keeps this act from making the necessary emotional impact.
Act 4: Dissolution
I’ve been noting the musical production because as act 4 begins, the tone of Front Row Seat shifts from happy, upbeat country to a darker, more emotional pop country production. The tone is fitting as this act is about the end of the marriage and couple falling apart. Abbott takes responsibility and laments of his actions in “Born to Break Your Heart,” another strong song on its own with cutting lyrics that tell the story without the need for an exaggerated emotional delivery. Abbott’s lamentation and guilt continues in “Ghosts.” You can infer that he wants another chance, but she makes it clear that they’re done in “This Isn’t Easy (Her Song).” The songs layer together nicely continuing a conversation and moving from confession to definitive end swiftly without missing an emotional beat.
Act 5: (Denouement)
The conclusion begins with a 90 second interlude (“Intro: A Loss of Memory”) leading right into the album’s first single, “Amnesia.” I concluded that song review by saying the song is weak on its own, but it does gain some strength within the context of the album. This is Abbott’s emotional valley; his lowest point. His guilt and pain is too much for him that he’d rather forget it happened than live with his actions. “Autumn” finds Abbott thinking about his ex-wife, believing that she will move on and grow stronger after he tore her down. He’s accepted where he’s at and what he’s done, and wants her to be happy. The light-weighted string production adds to the comfort in the song’s lyrics. Our story ends with acoustic “Anonymity” where Abbott continues to reminisce about their time together. Even though the darkness of night may bring bad memories, the light of the moon will shine and comfort them until the light of morning rises. It’s a more ambiguous ending that let’s the listener fill in the blanks of our characters’ fates, but Front Row Seat ends on note hope that both will be eventually be good.
For the most part, Front Row Seat is a decently constructed concept album. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end, but the album does have some flaws. Firstly, at 16 tracks, I think the album is a bit too long. Removing songs like “Kiss You Good.” “Intro: A Loss of Memory” and “Anonymity” would still tell a complete story and bring the album to a better 13 true songs.
Secondly, I think the overall story and emotional impact of the album would be improved by swapping acts 2 and 3. By having the acts laid out as they are and having act 3 refer to the mistress, we spend a chunk of 6 songs listening to that relationship develop, only to take a hard left turn into the dissolve of the marriage. This doesn’t work because the introductory tracks doesn’t establish a strong enough relationship for the desired effect of the final two acts. Why are we to care that Josh Abbott is so torn up by this break up when we spend nearly half the album following the good of his affair? Also, why would you spend all that time developing a relationship with a character who’s simply forgotten in the final two acts?
But if the intimacy act refers to the wife character, when we swap 2 and 3: we’re introduced to the characters and the first days of their relationship immediately followed by the Intimacy act where more depth and love is added into this couple. For six songs, we track the growth and depth of a loving relationship only to have our cages rattled by “Wasn’t That Drunk.” Also, by building those to acts uninterrupted, Front Row Seat would better deliver the desired emotional impact of songs like “Born to Break Your Heart” and “Amnesia.”
I think Front Row Seat simply misses the mark on the emotional impact a story like this should bring. I’m not advocating for a story where we sympathize with the cheater, but ambiguity of Act 3 as it stands now keeps the final two acts from delivering their emotional punch to the listener. I think it’s an album worth listening to at least once. Even if you’re not a fan of the concept album, Texas country fans are treated with a handful of good songs like “Wasn’t That Drunk” or “Autumn.” A concept album is not an easy undertaking and Josh Abbott does a good job telling a story within each act of Front Row Seat. It’s the way the acts themselves are structured that hinders the concept.