Album Review — Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs For The Saints’

[Editors note: This post originally appeared in Aug. 2018 on Fusion Country and is appearing as it was originally published. It’s being reposted here for reader visibility. It’s also one of the best releases of Kenny Chesney’s career, so it’s an album I definitely recommend.]

I have to be honest. I did not see myself chomping at the bit to discuss new Kenny Chesney music in the year 2018. Take it back two years ago when Chesney released Cosmic Hallelujah, an album I absolutely ripped to shreds for its lazy and uninspiring content. I remember declaring that Chesney would have to make one hell of a turn around to get me to ever take him seriously again. And well here we are, as Chesney delivers one of the most surprising albums I’ve heard this year in Songs For The Saints.

It’s important to know this album is inspired by and revolves around the Virgin Islands and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma on the islands in 2017. Chesney has a home on one of the islands, Saint John, and felt compelled to give back to a place that’s meant a lot to him. Not only is this album about the islands, but all proceeds for the albums are being donated to relief funds that help rebuild the islands. It’s an incredibly classy and heartfelt move by Chesney and his label. While Chesney’s legacy is defined by beach and island songs at this point, I don’t think I’ve heard this much passion and drive from Chesney in his music in years. His beach music is usually on the casual/party side, but this is the most mature take he’s ever done on this sub-genre of country music.

The album’s opening and title track is a direct ode to the islands. The saints in this song refer to each island, as they were each named after a saint. It’s the perfect opener, as it establishes what this album is all about and that’s the people of the islands, who clearly mean a lot to Chesney. “Every Heart” is a soft and sentimental song about the general struggle everyone shares in life. It’s a little sweet, but a nice message. I really enjoy the little touches in instrumentation in this song, particularly the bouzouki and organ. The lead single of the album, “Get Along”, is my least favorite track of the album. While I can appreciate the message of peace and happiness, I still don’t like the “buy a boat” line in the song. It’s just so consumeristic, although it doesn’t sound as bad I guess in the context of the rest of the album and can be interpreted as more of a throwaway line rather than some subliminal message.

Chesney has recorded several pirate-themed songs over the years, but “Pirate Song” is his best take on the theme yet. I particularly enjoy the details Chesney goes into as he fantasizes the life of a pirate sailing the open seas. By setting the scene well, you as the listener can really picture the life being painted in the song. This is what makes atmospheric songs work. Chesney collaborates with Ziggy Marley on the reggae-influenced “Love for Love City.” Love City is the nickname for St. John, Chesney’s home in the islands. Chesney and Marley sing of the people coming together in good times and need, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the communities on the islands no matter the situation. It’s a peaceful and easy-going song that makes you feel good in many ways.

I thought Carrie Underwood and Ludacris would be the most unlikely collaboration of the year, but Kenny Chesney and Lord Huron top it. Chesney covers the indie rock group’s “Ends of the Earth” and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is about the endless thirst for adventure and exploring the unknown. The soaring, spacey production of the song is immediately infectious and memorable. This has my vote for a future single. “Gulf Moon” is another standout on Songs For The Saints. The John Baumann-penned song gives you a look inside a little town along the gulf coast and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The storytelling in this song is absolutely great, as the little details of the surroundings and the people put you right there in the town with them. It’s great to see Chesney give an artist like Baumann a spot on this album and for Chesney it’s a legacy-type song.

“Island Rain” is about the relief and therapeutic attribute of an island rain. It goes on to relate it to general relief from an uncomfortable situation in everyday life. It’s yet another song on this album that does such a great job of relating to the everyday person. This track is a breath of fresh air to a person having a rough day. The touches of steel drum and organ throughout add even more to this peaceful nature. Beach country’s most recognizable face Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” The song is about the stress and anxieties of anticipating the impending hurricane season, a regular preparation for those who live in the islands and coasts. While they tire of this yearly happening, they continue to live and deal with hurricane season. It’s another good cover pick from Chesney, as it fits the theme of the album well.

The sing-a-long “We’re All Here” is about finding escapism from the troubles of everyday life, something Chesney has perfected many times in songs and does so again here. These are the kinds of simple songs that may not offer much variety, but it’s a comforting familiarity to many. The album’s closing track “Better Boat” is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded. Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song is about getting better at coping with the everyday struggles and stress of life. This is likened to learning how to build a better boat, which is such an apt and fitting metaphor. Chesney is joined on the song by a wonderful vocalist in Mindy Smith, who adds another layer with her harmonies with Chesney. There’s so much heart and truth in the lyrics that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t connect with this song. It’s a small reminder of what country music is all about.

Songs For The Saints will go down as one of Kenny Chesney’s best albums at the end of his career. On this album he casts away the lazy tropes and paper-thin depth that has plagued his career at times and delivers an album full of songs about love, happiness and finding peace after destruction. This album’s biggest strength is its songwriting, as it’s rooted in a place of reality of real people and places, highlighting the ups and downs of life. The production of this album is pretty good too, as it’s varied and does a wonderful job of weaving reggae, island and pop influences throughout. Kenny Chesney should be quite proud of this album, as he delivers a real gem in Songs For The Saints.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’

The return of Lee Ann Womack to country music couldn’t have come at a better time. Female country artists are struggling to make a dent in mainstream country music in radio and older artists are being pushed further from radio every day. Womack falls in both of these categories, making her album even more significant. She’s also no longer part of a major label, joining bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. With this newfound creative freedom and some extended time off, the anticipation for her new album The Way I’m Livin’ has certainly been high. I should note from the beginning that she did not write a single song on this album, but this is not a problem. Instead of writing her own songs, she went out and did something I’ve been begging mainstream country artists to do. She brought in an all-star cast of writers for the songs on this album. Garth Brooks has been rumored to do the same thing with his album. There are so many talented writers out there that deserve to be noticed and by bringing in these great writers, it allowed Womack to focus more on her vocal performance on this album (which shines brightly I might add).

The album begin with the prelude, “Fly.” It’s a soft song about Womack wishing she was in heaven flying above and seeing the whole world. Her vocals are absolutely stellar (get used to me saying this throughout the review). The writers for this song are Reed Foehl and Brent Cobb. If you recall, Cobb also co-wrote and performed the background vocals on “Poor Sweet Me” on Lucette’s debut album. This song was also a good way to transition into the second song on the album, “All His Saints.” It’s an upbeat song about Womack looking to get to heaven someday. The song is definitely Christian-oriented. The instrumentation on this is pretty good and the beat really draws you into the song. Mindy Smith was the writer of this song.

“Chances Are” is a song about a woman’s tough luck romantic life and this sets the scene for her in a bar where she wonders what her chances are with the guy across the room. It’s a heartbreak song that features strong country instrumentation. Womack’s twangy and dynamic vocals really shine on this song. Fellow country artist Hayes Carll wrote this song and it’s great to see Carll’s work featured on a big album like this one. I’m looking forward to his new album next year. This song is followed by “The Way I’m Livin’,” the debut single from this album. I already reviewed this song (click here for the full review) and here’s the main snippet of the review: “This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh.”  I will say after hearing the whole album that this song doesn’t come off as strong as I originally thought because there are better songs on the album.

The next song on the album is “Send It On Down,” which is about a woman praying to God to help her get out of her hometown. She wants to escape for many reasons, from her father’s hardware store being out of business to the men in the town having the unrealistic expectation that women should be rich to be attractive. It’s a real soulful song and I like the inclusion of the piano in the song. Chris Knight and David Leone do a great job with the songwriting. The great song writing continues on the Buddy Miller penned “Don’t Listen To The Wind.” It’s a song about a woman getting over a breakup and having a hard time escaping the memory of her ex. Womack’s vocals are excellent and she shows such great emotion in her voice at the right moments. The instrumentation is great too. One of the best songs on the The Way I’m Livin’.

Womack gets even better on “Same Kind Of Different.” It’s a stripped down love song about two different people who are really not different and are actually quite the same. They may not have experienced the same things in their life, but the feelings from these experiences are the same and this connects them. Natalie Hemby and Adam Hood exhibit top-notch songwriting and Womack once again blows me away with her vocals. This song is really the whole package and is arguably the best on the entire album. “Out On The Weekend” and “Nightwind” are two solid love songs from Womack, but each have a distinctive sound. The Neil Young song “Out On The Weekend” has a more Americana sound and “Nightwind,” written by Bruce Robison, has more of a country sound. The latter was a little more complex too, as the metaphors used in the song make you really pay attention to the story being told.

The low point of this album I feel is “Sleeping With The Devil.” It’s a song about a woman sleeping with a man who she believes is the devil. I’m not the song is bad, but it’s a bit repetitive and the theme is cliché. Womack already sang about the devil in “The Way I’m Livin’,” so maybe that’s why it feels repetitive. It is well written though, so kudos to Brennen Leigh. “Not Forgotten You” is another Bruce Robison penned song and it’s about a woman who continues to remember a man in her past. I felt this song could have had a little bit more to it, but it’s solid nonetheless. Although I found both of these songs to be slightly underwhelming, Womack’s vocals and the instrumentation are great on both of them.

Womack caps off her album with a bang in the final two songs. “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore” starts off with the beat of a drum and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation used in this song gives it a fresh and modern feel, yet traditional. It really has a distinctive sound compared to the rest of the album. The song is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who is a singer, and he’s determined to win her heart back. Despite her fame, he continues his pursuit of her. The writer of the song, Kenny Price, tells a nice little story through the lyrics. The album closes with “When I Come Around.” The song is about a woman looking for a man she lost contact with several years ago and she continues to wait for him around the spot where they last saw each other, hoping she can find him again. Again it’s a well written song that tells a good story that draws the listener in. Mando Saenz shows just how fantastic of a songwriter he really is and I hope more artists take notice of his talent.

Womack took several well-written songs on this album and just knocked them out of the park with her outstanding vocals. I’m going to reiterate once again what a great decision it was for her to recruit these fantastic songwriters for her album. Her husband and producer of the album, Frank Liddell, deserves credit too for a well produced album. The instrumentation never overtook Womack’s stellar vocals, which is important. When you have a vocalist with the talent of Womack you should always go lighter on the instrumentation and just let the vocals do the heavy lifting. Womack’s album is already being met with critical praise and her lead single, “The Way I’m Livin’,” is receiving radio time. And Womack did it her way too. She didn’t sell out to a major label nor did she try to play to radio programmers with her music. She made the music she wanted to and in the end when you make quality music like this people are bound to take notice. This album lived up to expectations and I certainly thinks it’s a top ten country album of the year. The Way I’m Livin’ comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10