Things That We Drink To (Warner Bros)
This is a bit like shooting Bambi, I know.
Local boy Morgan Evans is by all accounts a lovely chap; several of the people involved with him locally for years before this year’s breakthrough are good folks too; and his success – from the Hunter to a number one single in the USA is no small thing – justifiably is being celebrated as a rare local triumph.
But holy hell this is a pile of shit.
Not badly played shit: Evans can play and there’s nothing slapdash about the performances here. Nor badly produced shit: you’d not be able to pick a serious flaw in the sound of a record that feels comfortably, rather than shoutingly, 2018.
And in one sense not badly written shit either: structurally, arrangement-wise, and in ability to offer soundbites which listeners can hook on to and repeat without thought when happy, drunk, sad or wishing they too lived in a third generation rom-com/Hallmark Channel family drama, it does its job.
Tick those boxes. Cash those cheques. Fill those pews. Just don’t expect to hear anything – I mean anything at all – that doesn’t sound like it wasn’t pre-masticated, lined up by a machine on the factory floor, and stamped on exit from the plant with a shelf-life that will outlast religion.
Which is kinda funny given that after seeing him play recently I could not shake the notion that Evans is the Hillsong Keith Urban.
I don’t know if he’s a prosperity gospeller, or for that matter Christian – the churchy part is neither here nor there. But in his wide-eyed bonhomie that almost comes with an ask-me-how booklet, his youthful countenance and enthusiasm that has him look like his early 20s audience when he is a decade older, and the ability to raise a chorus the way Brian and Bobbi Houston raise funds (with come-unto-me smiles and the smoothest of sells) he is the perfect fare for a Sunday service in the church of god-as-mammon.
And like Urban, Evans has bleached – or run away from - all semblance of a genuine personality from his songs to enable them to be inserted into any “country” format in the USA without ever troubling a listener with the need to think. It’s worked too.
Though this is meant to be coming from heart, Evans and his principal co-writer and producer Chris DeStefano have assembled a parade of clichés, lyrical and musical, that says a lot without saying one damn new or real thing. About him, about you, about anything that hasn’t turned up in Grey’s Anatomy.
So grey skies will turn blue but sometimes you’ve got to “kiss somebody in the back of a cab or a subway train”. Drinking is for comfort and conversation (though it feels like it’s actually never been attempted beyond a watered down vodka cruiser) but straight or high he wants “to hold you forever … and just when I think I couldn’t love you anymore, baby I do”.
Elsewhere, we all should be driving a truck on the beach where you “dream to escape, dream to let go”, but be careful because “I had a couple of heartbreaks, made a couple of mis-takes”, but hey, “looking at you across this room feels like this could be one of those nights starts with a smile, one of those smiles turns to a drink, one of those drinks leads to a song, you and me dancing all night long”.
Even American, the song ostensibly about his wife, fellow country singer Kelsea Ballerini, which opens the album on a mildly punchy note, may as well have been written by an algorithm fed every hit song Music Row has released since 1986.
“She got hair as gold as Kansas wheat, her body moves like Bourbon Street/In New Orleans/So wild and free … she’s American, making my life better than its ever been/One part Norma Jean and one part Marilyn.”
And that stack of piffle is presumably heartfelt.
One of the supposed “new” things about Evans is the willingness to trade across genres to feed the country-pop beast. In Day Drunk there’s a looped rhythm that is sorta kinda hip hop-ish, with a chorus that even throws in a background crew shouty bit (hey, I’m like Nelly, without the band-aid!). You could see Me On You being adopted by the soft R&B practitioners (or redheaded Englishmen who play solo and like Galways girls), with its slightly slinky feel paired with an earnest melody. And Song For The Summer is a breezy California pop song that wouldn’t hurt a Katy Perry to borrow to reconnect with a slightly older fan base.
But really, none of that cross-fertilisation is new in country pop – or appreciably different to anything you might find on CMT any day of the week – because country pop, like the best corporate music machinery, going back to Tin Pan Alley and forward to Stockholm’s finest studios, has always appropriated and softened edgier trends to freshen the standard routes.
And Hillsong Keith’s album is nothing if not soft at the edges. And shiny on top. And empty at the centre. A good bloke’s compromises to be if not someone else then at least no one in particular.