Morgan Wallen’s debut single, 2016’s “The Way I Talk” was a fitting introduction to the former Voice contestant from East Tennessee. Like countless country singers before him, Wallen employed his small-town drawl, which feels so resonantly country that it can seem like the product of a Music Row laboratory, as the focal point of his prideful rural identity. Wallen has a penchant for making classic Nashville themes his own, adding dashes of winking self-awareness, aggrieved insecurity, and flirty playfulness to otherwise worn-out formulas. On 2018’s mega-hit “Whiskey Glasses,” he made it seem like he was the first country singer to discover Jack Daniel’s.
Halfway through Dangerous: The Double Album, Morgan Wallen’s 30-song collection — part album, part playlist, part content dump — Wallen begins “Still Goin’ Down,” the LP’s most compelling moment, by reciting the title of that same inaugural 2016 single. Morgan Wallen still wants to talk about the way Morgan Wallen talks, and he spends the radio-friendly backwoods party ode to anyone who identifies “more podunk than pop” defensively advocating for the same dated party-country formula he is working within. When Wallen sings, “for some folks a back road gets old, but for me it just can’t,” it feels like he’s singing about Nashville songwriting as much as two-lane dirt roads.
“Call it cliché, but hey,” he sings after cramming at least ten country clichés into a single chorus, “it’s still going down in the country.”
This argument — that Wallen is here to revive the genre’s most typical tropes — is the basic thesis of Dangerous, which is less interested in presenting the singer as the future of country music and more as the summation of its last decade. Over 100 sometimes very long minutes, Wallen successfully incorporates the white-washed R&B of Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett on “Bartender,” the everyman beer-guzzling of Luke Combs on “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt,” and the bruised bravado of Chris Stapleton on “Only Thing That’s Gone,” which features none other than Stapleton himself.
Dangerous is most affecting when Wallen’s husky, emotive voice does the heavy lifting. The album’s most moving moment may be the chorus of “865,” which consists almost entirely of Wallen rattling off a Knoxville phone number he cares about enough to have memorized. The singer’s Tennessee twang is supple and dynamic enough to make the words Bud Light sound poignant on “This Bar,” and to earn sympathy during his heartbroken “sunburnt Silverado” joyrides after getting ditched on album opener “Sand in My Boots.” Twenty-six songs later, after an hour-plus of drunk dials and heartbroken pleas, it’s strangely moving to discover that the most emotional phone call Wallen makes throughout this feature-film length album is to the local newspaper to place a backpage ad for that same beloved truck on “Silverado for Sale.”
The flaws of Dangerous, apart from being 17 songs too long, is that Wallen does not always seem up to the heavy task of pumping fresh life into well-worn topics. Wallen falls into that trap as often as he impressively avoids it, and there are entire stretches of this record that are as unconvincing (“Outlaw”) as they are dull (“Whatcha Think of Country Now”). Wallen also understands that he sounds best when reveling in whiskey worship, to the point where he risks overdoing it. He sings the word “whiskey” 21 times throughout the course of the record, just one less than the number of its 30 songs (22) that reference drinking. (Among the eight songs that do not, is Wallen’s reverent take on “Cover Me Up,” Jason Isbell’s signature meditation on fresh, frightful sobriety.)
All of which makes it all the more shocking when Wallen pokes a hole in his own pandemic partying bubble on “Livin’ the Dream,” which presents Wallen’s star-making, tabloid-fueled rise to country music’s top as an unglamorous litany of “alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline. “Drinkin’ ‘cause I need to,” he sings with a dark sneer, “Damnit, what a good life.” It’s striking to hear Wallen sing those words sarcastically after spending the previous 28 songs convincing us that he means it.