The Predictable Return of Morgan Wallen
Morgan Wallen isn’t about to tamper with a winning musical formula. The biggest country star of the 2020s — and one of the biggest stars in pop, period — sticks to exactly what has already worked for him on his new album, “One Thing at a Time.” Its 36 songs — yes, 36 — show abundant craftsmanship and barely a hint of new ambition or risk.
The dozens of new songs are variations on scenarios from Wallen’s two previous albums, “If You Know Me” from 2018 and “Dangerous: The Double Album” from 2021. Nearly every song on the album mentions drinking. Plenty of them revolve around breakups: some with regret, some with relief. Pickup trucks and chewing tobacco get name-checked. Life in rural eastern Tennessee — bars, fishing, back roads, moonshine, boots, the Bible — is a point of pride and a yardstick for whether a partner is worth keeping, especially if she’s a city gal.
The two years between albums were a roller coaster for Wallen. Soon after “Dangerous” was released, he was caught on video using a racial slur, which caused his label to suspend him (temporarily), some streaming services and the CMT cable channel to drop his music (temporarily) and the Academy of Country Music Awards to remove his name from its 2021 ballot.
But it was barely a speed bump. Wallen had an unlikely career path. He grew up in Sneedville, Tenn., outside Knoxville, and in 2014 he lost on “The Voice” but got his chance anyway. He barnstormed his way to recognition. After his racial slur went public, he apologized on social media, calling the incident “hour 72 of a 72-hour bender,” saying that he was meeting with Black organizations and adding, “I’ve got many more things to learn, but I already know that I don’t want to add to any division.”
Soon his music was streaming again, and “Dangerous” became one of the best-selling albums of 2021, certified for four million sales in the United States. Late in 2021, Wallen was featured on a hip-hop single by the rapper Lil Durk, “Broadway Girls,” singing about the temptresses of Nashville’s Lower Broadway honky-tonks.
In 2022, Wallen toured arenas, and the Academy of Country Music gave “Dangerous” its award as album of the year. His combination of proud rural roots and well-calibrated arena country was unstoppable.
So why change what worked? On “One Thing at a Time,” a modern Nashville product with many contributors, Wallen largely collaborates with and draws on songwriters who have supplied him before. He also retains the producer, Joey Moi, who has been with him since his debut album. The songwriting teams with and behind Wallen return to familiar motifs: barroom neon (“Neon Star”), the red letters of the Bible (“I Wrote the Book”), the 865 area code of eastern Tennessee (“Tennessee Numbers”) and specifying just what qualifies as “country” (“Ain’t That Some”).
There’s ample skill on display on the new album. Old-school country-music wordplay is at the core of songs like “Days That End in Why” and “You Proof,” both about trying to drink away regrets, and “Wine Into Water,” a ballad that has its narrator proffering some Napa cabernet after a fight, hoping to turn “this wine into water under the bridge.” In “Keith Whitley,” song titles from the country singer who died in 1989 are woven into a whiskey-soaked plaint about lost love. And in “Everything I Love,” set to a clip-clop beat that harks back to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Wallen shrewdly presents all of his country bona fides while denouncing the ex he showed them to; she was from a “high-rise town” and now “I can’t take my Silverado down them roads we used to ride.”
Moi, who previously produced Nickelback, makes every track gleam, using overarching pedal steel guitar and Wallen’s proud Tennessee drawl to mark the music as country while cannily drawing on Eagles, Tom Petty, the arena marches of U2 and even hip-hop. The ticking, twitchy drum-machine sounds of trap and R&B and the cadences of melodic rap show up in songs like “Sunrise” and “180 (Lifestyle),” which credits its hook to the 2014 hip-hop hit “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, while its lyrics refer back to “Broadway Girls.”
But over the lengthy course of the album, the songs tend to cycle through just a handful of approaches. Eventually, the nasal grain of Wallen’s singing starts to feel like Auto-Tune or another studio effect.
Now and then, a human voice peeks out of the country machine. In the album’s title track, the brisk beat and layered rhythm guitars are pure Fleetwood Mac while Wallen sings, “I’ve got a lot of habits I gotta kick,” but just one at a time; he’s sticking to whiskey, nicotine and amphetamines to get through breaking up. Wallen gets casually surly in “Hope That’s True,” snarling at a Mercedes-driving, city-loving ex-girlfriend who “got drunk one night and told me I was white trash,” a pushback that suggests he knows the power of words.
The album takes a turn for the devout as it’s about to end. In “Don’t Think Jesus,” a guy who “starts writing songs ’bout whiskey and women” and falls into “chasing the devil through honky-tonk bars” finds consolation through prayer. In “Outlook,” he’s rescued from “going toe to toe with the devil” by someone “up there” and by “an angel by my side.”
The album ends with “Dying Man,” a country power ballad about stardom and a self-destructive streak; although Wallen didn’t write it, it’s tailored to him. The singer compares himself to Elvis Presley and Hank Williams as a “set-on-dying man” who’s saved by the right woman: “I never believed in angels ’til one believed in me,” he sings. But songs about whiskey and women are clearly a habit he’s not about to kick.
“One Thing at a Time”