Given all the trouble Morgan Wallen got himself into while drinking last year, you might be surprised to discover how many of the songs on his new double album, “Dangerous,” are set in dimly lit bars.
In May, the 27-year-old country star was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct after an incident of what he called “horseplay” at a honky-tonk in downtown Nashville, Tenn. Then, in October, “Saturday Night Live” rescinded a coveted invite to perform after clips surfaced on social media showing Wallen partying without a mask in a tightly packed crowd.
Yet here he is again and again on “Dangerous,” bathed in the glow of some neon sign or another as he gets “Tennessee tipsy” with a lady friend or loses count of the number of beers he and his boys have downed. In “This Bar,” one of several advance singles from the album that have already racked up tens of millions of streams, Wallen deploys a bit of expert wordplay to describe all the life he’s lived under the roof of his favorite watering hole: “I found myself in this bar,” he sings, not exactly encouraging anyone to forget the sight of his mug shot.
Then again, how damaging has any of this trouble been for him?
The famous owner of the establishment in Nashville — Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk and Rock ‘n’ Roll Steakhouse — publicly forgave Wallen for smashing a shot glass. (The two later posed for a chummy photo on Instagram.) And last month, shortly after the 27-year-old singer was named new artist of the year at the CMA Awards, “SNL” ended up rebooking Wallen, who in addition to doing two songs took part in a sketch gently lampooning his COVID-courting ways.
Minus any serious consequences, the result was a light burnishing of the bad-boy image that’s helping to distinguish Wallen as country music enters its post-bro era. With once-dominant artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton having reached middle age, the genre needs fresh male superstars, and Wallen isn’t the only aspirant who understands that success these days relies upon the type of internet presence that Nashville’s older stars have only fitfully pursued.
Whether by incorporating hip-hop into their music (à la Sam Hunt) or reissuing their albums in overstuffed deluxe editions (like Luke Combs), country’s young dudes are no less oriented toward streaming than their peers in pop and rap are. But unlike the arty-sensitive Hunt or the friendly-regular Combs, Wallen — whose TikTok hit “7 Summers” recently set a record, later broken by Combs, for the most first-week streams by a male country solo act — brandishes something of an edge; there’s a knowingly scuzzy quality to his mullet haircut and his sleeveless flannel shirts that feels genuine even if his entrance to show business came as a baby-faced contestant on “The Voice.”
How does that manifest on “Dangerous,” which follows Wallen’s chart-topping 2018 debut, “If I Know Me”? Among the album’s 30 tunes — seven more than Combs’ “What You See Ain’t Always What You Get” from last year — are a half-dozen with the words “whiskey,” “beer” or “country” in their titles.
In “Country Ass S—,” he sings about happily letting his neck redden on a fishing trip; in “Blame It on Me,” he takes the blame (which is to say the credit) for a woman’s switching from wine to whiskey. The title track, which Wallen has said he wrote after that night at Kid Rock’s joint, opens with the narrator “sitting in the back of a cop car, banging my head on a window.”
Even the slower, prettier stuff — and nothing here (or elsewhere on country radio) is prettier than “7 Summers” — puts across a kind of knucklehead intransigence: Over dreamy electric guitars that recall Fleetwood Mac, Wallen thinks wistfully in “7 Summers” about the one that got away, even as he acknowledges that her dad must be relieved she “dodged a bullet of a good ol’ boy like me.”
“I still go drinking, same friends on Friday,” he adds with more than a hint of pride, “Guess you never saw things my way anyway.”
As rowdy or unvarnished as Wallen might want to appear on “Dangerous,” his songs — most of which he co-wrote with experienced Music Row pros such as Shane McAnally, Rodney Clawson and Hillary Lindsey — invariably flaunt the tight structures that Nashville prizes; that’s true even when he and his producer, Joey Moi (who’s also worked with Florida Georgia Line), bring in outside textures like the bleary trap beat that powers the Post Malone-ish “Warning.”
What makes the music breathe, especially as the collection stretches into its second hour, is Wallen’s singing, which has a soulful flexibility similar to that of Chris Stapleton, who turns up to match raspy runs with Wallen in “Only Thing That’s Gone,” a muscular duet addressed to — who else? — a bartender. As a vocalist, Wallen is best on “Dangerous” when he softens the tough-guy act with a pang of physical desire, as in “Somebody’s Problem,” where he’s “thinking ‘bout them tan lines,” and “Me on Whiskey,” where he’s actually eager to leave a bar for once: “I know you got your red dress on,” he sings, one eye on the door. “But it was always gonna come back off.”
The craving in these intimate bedroom jams is perhaps a sign that, even if it was good for business, Wallen’s bumpy 2020 left him unsure about a life spent in the spotlight. “Dangerous” closes with a vivid hard-at-the-top song called “Livin’ the Dream” and “Quittin’ Time,” a yearning acoustic number (co-written by Eric Church) about how the singer can tell a lover is finished with him by “the tears not in your eyes.”
That’s a great line, one Wallen sells with real empathy. But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t also hear the wink of a rascal ready to get back out there.