It may be the dead of winter but the conventions of pop music seem to slowly thaw out of their pandemic-induced coma. Just as I was anticipating a new wave a continued wave of down-to-earth indie rock, Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album”, took the top spot on Billboard, surpassing all-time records for the most simultaneous Global 200 hits by a country musician. With just his second album, the SNL star continues the trend of newcomers shooting to the top in the wake of Olivia Rodrigo.
The first proverbial elephant that must be addressed with “Dangerous” is its length: spanning a whopping 30 songs, by the time the conclusive “Quittin Time” comes on you have sat through a collective 1 hour and 7 minute runtime, and I must admit, at least 15 of those minutes could have gone to something more productive. Despite its length, there is really not much to discuss or dissect here: the subject matter of Wallen’s songs is a menagerie of tried and true country staples. Where there isn’t beer there’s whiskey, where there isn’t whiskey there’s Silverado trucks and there is always a girl in some way tying these elements together. Whatever imagery comes to your mind upon hearing “modern country” probably hits the nail on the head.
Monotonous musical convention
There are, of course, a few standouts from the general mold: narratives that, while not groundbreaking, do offer somewhat unique perspectives. More Surprised Than Me describes the romance between a high-class girl and a simple country bumpkin. From the latter’s perspective we see the hints of classism and snobbery he has to deal with – trying to come off as more “sophisticated” than he is, living with low self-esteem from the judgmental glances and gossip trailing him, but ultimately still finding solace in the genuine affection from his partner. There’s also More Than My Hometown, where the singer must choose between his love and the deep-rooted ties to his hometown, hinting at both the deep-rooted connection and perhaps the implicitly suffocating conventions rural young adults are expected to abide by. I think these songs stuck with me just because there was some deeper layer to it – a unique story, a sense of emotion, perhaps even a statement about life in small town Americana. But, these moments are few and far between.
The instrumentation is about on par with the lyrics – a nigh-endless flow of “consistently solid”. There’s your guitars, your subtle banjo and mandolin twangs sprinkled in for authenticity, there’s even the comparatively low bass guitar surfacing in “Somethin’ Country”. The sound is so unremarkable, in fact, that three whole unrelated songs passed before I realized the actual album ended a while back. My gripe with Wallen’s (admittedly extremely melodic) voice is the same as with the instrumental sound: it never changes.
The man can sing about leaving an emotionally vulnerable girl with “Neon Eyes”, sining how he could to be “Dangerous” (oh the irony), or doing “County A$$ Shit” with his friends, all in the same unflinching, radio-friendly calm you’ve definitely heard before driving through a rural area. Don’t lie to yourself, you know the one. Whereas my pop music preferences are firmly stuck in the 1980s, my tastes in country were left on a Folsom Prison yard in 1968, and being a fan of that era I put a lot of stock in just how much emotion country singers can convey with just their vocal performance. This emotion is completely absent and devoid here, leaving the album feeling less like a genuine art piece and more a checklist of country tropes market-researched to best appeal to the desired consumers.
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Perks of being a product
For all its perceived soullessness, however, I find it very hard to actually dislike the album. Why should I? It hasn’t offended me in any way. Of the few songs that actually stood out I couldn’t point to any one as exceedingly bad or unpleasant. And while not particularly stimulating, listening to it was a decently pleasant experience.
A theme I keep coming back to with these reviews is comfort, and at risk of redundancy I’d like to bring it up again here. “Dangerous” is comfortable. It is exceptionally comfortable. Where I compared Taylor Swift’s “evermore” to visiting your hometown after a semester of college, Wallen’s magnum opus is the mom’s minivan you’re driving there. It’s safe, simple, designed by scientists and researchers over the years to be the most mass-friendly, inoffensive package it can be. I don’t think it can truly be faulted for that. If this is the niche the album is trying to fill, it succeeds on all fronts.
I think this is also what makes this, in my opinion, totally conventional behemoth the megahit it is today. It’s really the first really poppy album of 2021. A brief postcard from a simpler time, before the COVIDs and the unrests and the stress, and really who wouldn’t want at least a glimpse into those times right now? To some it’s probably even a source of genuine, familiar tranquility, a much needed cooldown (and I hate this phrase) “in these trying times”.
Eventually pop culture will inevitably move on, and the album will be relegated to background music on rural radio stations, there to brighten up a working joe’s mood as the sun rises over the fields, and then be forgotten a second later. It’s certainly Morgan Wallen’s ticket into the mainstream. The man certainly has talent, and with more artistic bravery and exploration I think he is capable of making some genuinely worthwhile stuff. In the meantime, however, his current discography has carved out a nice, cozy spot somewhere between Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line as a conventional but overall solid collection.
If you want to get into country having never listened to country, and Johnny Cash’s dour somberness wards you off, this is the perfect place to start.