After spending nearly two decades as country music’s most reliable post-Jimmy Buffett escapist, Kenny Chesney has turned to figuring out how to comfortably carve out a role as a respectable mid-career standard-bearer for grown-up universal country, between the distant forty-something nostalgia of 2014’s American Kids and 2016’s unusually meditative Cosmic Hallelujah.
After several albums of middle-aged soul-searching, the 50 year-old superstar hits his stride on Songs for the Saints, a relatively somber, loosely-conceived concept album based on his part-time home, the hurricane-ravaged Virgin Islands. It turns out that Chesney’s stadium-sized feel-good beach-country is perfectly suited to tackle the natural-disaster-as-apocalypse allegory traced throughout his latest collection, a song-cycle that transforms grief and despair into healing and resilience.
Chesney sounds more convincing than ever on communal prayers like “Get Along,” “Better Boat” and “Every Heart.” “Every heart is an island,” he croons on the latter, “And no one’s alone.”
Elsewhere, the singer’s heartland optimism occasionally gets so unflappable (“Island Rain”) that it can confound. And despite its appropriately world-weary chorus, Chesney’s excessively on-the-nose duet with Buffett himself on Buffett’s own 1974 deep-cut “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season” tries too hard to bridge the old Chesney with the new.
As he approaches 25 years since his debut album, the Chesney of Songs for the Saints is doing his most urgent work in years; the LP is a heartfelt statement of resilience and determination that finds the singer refocusing his feel-good anthems towards heavier and heartier material. The only question is whether or not Chesney’s latest marks a reactive glimpse of inspiration or an entirely new way forward.