Morgan Wallen’s voice can be as abrasive as the bottom-shelf liquor he sings about. When he auditioned for a short-lived stint on “The Voice” in 2014, Shakira called the aspiring country singer’s vocal tone “as manly as it gets,” a distinction he later built on with a testosterone-forward look that combines cut-off plaids, a mullet, and a party-starting catchphrase, “GAHT,” something like a good ol’ boy’s “dale.”
Wallen’s raucous side first got him noticed in Nashville, but baring his soul on songs like “Cover Me Up,” a bruised take on a Jason Isbellsong, made him into a superstar. Even before the release of his second album, Dangerous, the Sneedville, Tennessee native had racked up 3.4 billion streams, including four country airplay No. 1s and a Billboard top 10, culminating, infamously, in being disinvited from Saturday Night Live after video surfaced of Wallen not wearing a mask at a party. Dangerous has 30 songs, two discs, and two modes: the “rowdy redneck” raising hell in the boondocks, and the downhome romantic dreaming of his own piece of sky. Though Wallen’s idea was to split the album according to theme, things aren’t quite as delineated as that. Even at his most boisterous, Wallen is given to introspection, and he can make the straightest love song gnarly.
The clichés of Music Row are well-worn; Wallen looks at them closer to find a new grain. On “865,” he is a poet laureate of boozy desperation, coming closer to drunk-dialing with each shot; on the Thomas Rhett co-write “Whiskey’d My Way,” he has the pathos of a wounded pup, apologetically approaching a crush over pedal steel. For all their intimacy, these are songs made to fill football stadiums; Dangerous’ sole producer Joey Moi provides a sheen that can make Wallen’s music feel as epic as anything by Adele. With its rousing chorus and super-sized guitar solo, “Silverado for Sale” makes a love song to a truck feel fresh, as Wallen realizes, glassy-eyed, that his memories are etched into each wrinkle of its bench seat.
Part of what makes Wallen’s writing so magnetic is the easy, idiomatic shorthand that plunges you directly into his world. Take the tongue-twisting lines that open “Somebody’s Problem,” a tender ballad to a free-spirited woman that’s among Dangerous’ very best songs: “A ’Bama-red 4Runner pulled into the party/With a 30A sticker on the back windshield,” he sings, an image so vivid you can practically smell the gasoline. He has a riddler’s ear for wordplay and an enchantment with the everyday that makes “dodging potholes in my sunburnt Silverado,” as he sings on the piano-led opener “Sand in My Boots,” sound downright alluring. Wallen’s biggest crossover hit to date, the Shane McAnally co-write “7 Summers,” is lit by the rosy glow of lost love. The daydream is not without bite: Wallen spells out the lyrics’ double meaning with a stand-up comic’s knack for timing. “That was seven summers of coke…./And Southern Comfort,” he sings, a hook that plays innocently enough for country radio but holds a knowing wink for those who really like to rage.
As Wallen’s audience has broadened, so has his taste. Dangerous’ big and breezy title track is a maximalist flip of the angular art-pop that packed out Scottish indie discos in the ’80s, and the booming drums and ’80s synths of “This Bar” wouldn’t sound out of place on Taylor Swift’s Red. A weaker spot is “Wasted on You,” with a blend of trap snares and guitar twang that isn’t quite as fluid as the country/hip-hop hybrids of, say, Hunt. But among the album’s 30 tracks there are few skips. You could lose the slightly formulaic “Only Thing That’s Gone,” which wastes a Chris Stapleton feature, and the overly literal “Outlaw.” The boisterous “Country A$$ Shit” riffs on the fun-dumb ethos of Wallen’s 2017 Florida Georgia Line collaboration “Up Down” but loses its knockabout charm.
Wallen’s best songs need less adornment, as with the album’s bookends “Quittin’ Time” and “Sand in My Boots,” a heartbreak kid’s confessional that echoes as if he is singing from a church’s pulpit. “Somethin’ ’bout the way she kissed me tells me she’d love Eastern Tennessee,” Wallen sings, as his barnacled voice cracks into a howl that could reach up to the neon moon. The sentiment is familiar enough, but when Wallen sings it, it’s enough to make you shiver.