Country Jukebox Jury LP: Morgan Wallen – Dangerous, the Double Album

January 8, 2021

A record label today must recoup their outlay and, hopefully, make an immense profit so they can continue as a going concern (if a big conglomerate isn’t underwriting any pre-tax losses). That’s why a record executive hires A&R guys to keep their ears to the ground or, in today’s case, to the digital streaming platforms. Thus can an artist slide into people’s ears with something that sounds a lot like Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and Max Martin’s school of pop.

I call this genre Algorythm’n’Blues.

This album, released by Republic Records in association with Morgan’s Nashville-based label Big Loud, sounds like an algorithm. Put Ed Sheeran, Drake and Luke Combs in the mix and whizz it up. Package it in a bemulleted bloke who last year appeared on Saturday Night Live lampooning his own Covidiocy. Market it to the 18-35 demographic, as had been done with Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs, and watch the money roll in.

The sequencing doesn’t matter because nobody who listens to this album (bar about one in every 200) will work their way through 30 tunes in one go, or even in two groups of 15. Luke Combs delivered 23 tracks in three instalments, but Morgan is following the Chris Brown approach, who in 2017 put out a triple-disc set of 45 songs.

Morgan’s first album was radio friendly, full of anthemic pop including lead single The Way I Talk, Florida Georgia Line tagteam bro anthem Up Down, the biggest song on the radio 2019 Whiskey Glasses and the woozy Chasin’ You. I imagine songs on this album will soundtrack many TikTok videos and that’s where some of this album is aimed: accompanying moments in people’s lives. We already saw that with the enormous success of 7 Summers, where non-country listeners were introduced to Morgan.

As a product, Dangerous is very of its time. In 1968, The Beatles put out a four-sided vinyl album which included Blackbird, Helter Skelter and Revolution #9. In 1991, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous was about 20 minutes too long and went right to the edge of the compact disc, but nonetheless gave us Black or White and Remember The Time, both with blockbuster videos attached to turn them into events.

The album has taken a back seat in the digital era, thanks to the unbundling of tracks which mean people can just find the singles. Even Garth Brooks made fans wait over two years for his Fun album when three decades ago he was able to go up against The Beatles in the charts. He lost heavily but at least he could try.

In 2019, Old Town Road broke the record for longest-running Hot 100 number one. Country was megabucks again and Luke Combs had quickly become the most marketable star of the genre in a decade. Luke and Chris Stapleton have barely been off the album charts in six years, which is testament to their status as ‘gateways’ for country newbies. Perhaps Morgan is another gateway and he sounds and looks the part.

After all that, what does the album sound like? It sounds like a Joey Moi production, as the man who left his sonic fingerprints over Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line takes another large amount of money to make something the market wants to hear and the labels want to sell. A few tracks crank up the guitars to 12 but mostly there is clear separation or smart layering of tracks, with the trademark multivocal Moi effect present on plenty of tracks.

Sand in my Boots opens the album. Morgan sings about where he’s from and a girl tries to match his accent. We get ‘flipflops’, ‘dodging potholes in my sunburnt Silverado’, ‘heartbroke desperado’ and stars in the sky. It sounds like a song Luke Combs would take to number one across the world. There are organic instruments, Morgan’s voice is really high up in the mix and the melody is really strong. It sounds like the future of country music, appealing to folk beyond the South of America and, in fact, beyond America itself.

Wasted On You has Morgan sing how ‘I dropped the ball’ and introduces some digital cymbals to a tale of heartache. Ben Burgess co-wrote Whiskey Glasses and, as a thank you, he appears as a featured vocalist on Outlaw which portrays the lady as someone who shoots a ‘bad’ man with a ‘bang bang’.

Chris Stapleton pops up on Only Thing That’s Gone to ensure the algorithm will pick up this song which can be dragged into a Roots playlist. Over a dropped-D guitar line, the pair harmonise with a request for a drink which ‘ain’t the only thing that’s gone’. As many reviewers will note, Morgan more than holds his own as a singer with the Great Stapleton.

That duet segues into a studio version of Cover Me Up. Millions have viewed various videos online or heard Morgan play this near the end of his concerts. It told country fans that he respects the craft, much like Stapleton. Assisted by a pedal steel guitar solo, this is a Proper Song about sobriety which will earn its writer Jason Isbell a great deal of money in mechanical royalties (and, with luck, even more new fans).

There follow the two biggest teasers for the album: reminiscin’ tune 7 Summers, which has already had a life on TikTok and enjoyed success on the Hot 100, peaking at six; and bittersweet More Than My Hometown, where ‘our mamas are best friends’ and love feels like when ‘the bass hits the hook’. The first side demonstrates that Morgan knows that Tennessee is home but that themes of finding love and self-pity of heartbreak are universal. Republic/Big Loud know this as well.

Another Proper Song is Quittin’ Time. Eric Church and Luke Laird must have finished it and thought a young whippersnapper could do with it instead. Morgan is that cub, who does a nifty impression of Eric singing of thinking, drinking and how ‘rhyme has a reason’. It’s a country song which concludes the double album but will be plucked out for playlists.

Somebody’s Problem is a song which allows very little room to breathe, constantly pushing forward and, in an Ed Sheeran style, self-censoring (‘eff it up’). The melody is terrific and the chorus has some marvellous chords over softly plucked nylon strings. 865 is the area code for Knoxville, Tennessee, and gives its name to a song in which Morgan attempts to drink to forget his beloved but he can’t forget the phone number, which forms most of the chorus. This song is perfect for a playlist of phone numbers in songs.

On the other hand, More Surprised Than Me (co-written by Niko Moon, Burgess and veteran Lee Thomas Miller) is another song that alights upon Morgan’s accent, in a song whose chorus lays bare the premise of the song: Morgan is amazed (indeed ‘surprised’) that his lady has chosen him. This song is perfect for a playlist of ‘I’m a lucky sod’ songs.

Blame It On Me is yet another song that mentions Morgan’s drawl – we get it, we got it from his debut single! – but it sounds like what Nashville reckon pop music is: a wash of guitar over a processed beat and a digital lick, with layers of vocals singing about being from the South. It’s filler and co-writer Ashley Gorley knows it. Today, you would call it ‘skippable’. Ditto the song Warning, which is poodle rock transplanted to Nashville’s Broadway, and Neon Eyes, a singalong Middle of the Dirt Road tune about dancing, possibly in a bar at Nashville’s Broadway.

This album is labelled country so there must be country songs. Co-written by Wallen with his fellow Big Loud songwriter Ernest K Smith, Wonderin’ bout the Wind would have fitted in well on his first album: there’s smooth production and big drums, but it also has the sort of melancholy melody that makes it interesting and a lyric in touch with the elements. Country A$$ Shit (note the dollar signs) employs some twang and a bellowable chorus to underscore Morgan’s desire to hang out with his buddies. Luke Combs does this sort of thing better, but the algorithm will throw up Morgan, who will forever be in Luke’s shadow.

Whatcha Think of Country Now is a gift from Devin Dawson and Dallas Davidson, a good friend of Luke Bryan. Country has moved on from Luke shaking his tush, and indeed Florida Georgia Line yelling at ladies from car windows. Putting Luke and FGL into an algorithm gets this song, in which Morgan takes his lady ‘riding on the farm…fishing in the dark’. The rhyme ‘old Willie/ hillbilly’ is smart and the song is fun. It sounds like city girls visiting Nashville for a bachelorette party, which may have been the brief.

Dallas co-wrote Silverado For Sale, with Luke’s other mate Ben Hayslip (which is Peach Pickers bingo!!). The song is identical to the recent Tim McGraw song 7500 OBO, Thomas Rhett’s That Old Truck or Jason Aldean’s If My Truck Could Talk. Maybe the algorithm will throw those up when someone searches for ‘country songs about vehicles’. That isn’t to deny that the song is great, with a Middle of the Dirt Road groove.

Luke Bryan could well have recorded Me On Whiskey, one of many songs which mention a jukebox – spot them all and win a free shot of JD! A rewrite of Luke’s Strip It Down with even more foreplay and containing the same number of chords (two), a lady in a red dress and Morgan, probably with his cut-off denim shirt, get ‘tipsy in the neon light’ and probably end up making love.

Whiskey’d My Way is a song Jon Pardi could have cut, with its soft shuffle and talk of ‘rock bottom’. The fact that Thomas Rhett wrote it impressed me, and I imagine TR’s forthcoming fifth album will sound sonically and lyrically very similar to much of Dangerous. Your Bartender is another Rhett composition, a co-write with dad Rhett Akins who, even though he is in his fifties, still knows what the kids like to hear. The song is full of the poppy elements of a TR song, with a second verse about beds, bibles and dreams, and I won’t spoil the killer line of the chorus. It’s a nice gift from TR to MW, the former being too cute and in love with his wife to act as a bartender and sell the song as well as Morgan does.

The second half of the album is a continuation of the first, with plenty of country radio catnip such as Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt (‘one life, one bar, one church’) and Still Goin Down. That one is track 16, or the first track of the second disc, and was performed on SNL. It’s a perfect track to lead an album with, a ‘Heeeeere’s Morgan!’, albeit delivered in a gentler manner than it could be. Featuring another chorus about ‘beer on a Friday night’ in a small town, it is one of seven tunes on the album written with or by Michael Hardy, who was set to support Morgan on a set of European dates in May 2020. The venues – Islington Garage, Glasgow SWG3 Warehouse, Manchester Gorilla, Newcastle Academy2 – would have been intimate. Morgan Wallen will never play venues of that size again.

Hardy has a knack for knowing what sounds great, which he demonstrates on his own album A Rock, and his co-compositions run through the second half of the album. Beer Don’t opens with squealing guitars last heard on Hardy’s album and Morgan banging on about how ‘round here the sun goes down slow but the beer don’t’. Livin The Dream is about being a musician on the road, which deserves to be much higher up the album than track 29(!) with the disjunction between appearance and reality (‘There’s a stranger in the mirror’).

Somethin Country sounds like ‘something Hardy’ even down to the vocal inflections. It’s brill. Conway Twitty gets a namecheck, there’s a ‘skimpy/Mississippi’ rhyme and ‘catfish’ in the verses, and in the chorus Morgan encourages his new belle to duck out of the bar with some rapped delivery that reminds every listener of Tyler Hubbard. It’s fun and rowdy, and it should be a crowd favourite. Kudos to Hardy and the chaps for putting ‘back forty’ (the deepest part of a farm) on a commercial country album.

Because it’s a modern country album there is drinking here too. Morgan enjoys rites of passages such as getting drunk, being nice to the bouncer and watching a potential wife ‘walk through the door with some new jerk’ on This Bar. The title track is another Smith/Wallen tune where our protagonist sing-raps lines about ‘stayin’ right here’ but gives way to a middle-eight with some falsetto notes. Sam Hunt’s influence on the current crop has been enormous, and Morgan slides effortlessly into the market Sam created with his album Montevallo, which took five years to follow up. Morgan did it inside three.

Need A Boat sees a woman’s presence on an album built for the bros. (Or rather, to be as reductive as a sales rep: guys want to drink with him, girls want to drink beside him). Hillary Lindsey sprinkles her magic on a honky-tonker which includes barstools, bottles and a desire to go fishing to forget his problems. The melody is strong (Hillary helped Carrie Underwood write smash after smash) and Morgan sells it well. I am sure Morgan can buy whatever boat he wants, to go with that Silverado, such will be the success of Dangerous: The Double Album.

I wonder if the point of presenting a buffet of 30 songs is to allow playlist-makers (ie, the consumer or music fanatic) to design their own Morgan Wallen adventure. (See my 17-track offering below.) Country fans can pick Cover Me Up and all the Hardy tunes; pop fans can opt for 7 Summers, Somebody’s Problem and the ‘Wallen Album Mix’ of the Diplo duet Heartless. Here, the song’s original vocal is underlaid by a more rockin’ arrangement.

I don’t know if ‘the buffet’ will be a trend. Even Dua Lipa limited herself to 11 tracks, albeit with a dance mix following along. Last year Dua Lipa had five hits and ended the year with an expensive streamed concert. Two years ago this week, Lizzo released Juice, an astonishing piece of pop that ushered in the Year of Lizzo.

The rapper/flautist/activist/singer may well emerge with a new album this year but until then this is the Year of Wallen, the Tennessee tyke. After the stupidity of disrespecting quarantine and still having a career, it will be fascinating to see how streaming services, Youtube, radio, labels and, of course, the consumer unite to make Morgan Wallen a superstar.

Several executives have their careers on the line.

Find my version of Dangerous in a Spotify playlist here.

SIDE A

Still Going Down
Beer Don’t
7 Summers
Your Bartender
Somethin’ Country
Only Thing That’s Gone
Livin The Dream
More Than My Hometown

SIDE B

Whatcha Think of Country Now
Somebody’s Problem
More Surprised Than Me
Me on Whiskey
Need A Boat
This Bar
Quittin Time
Silverado For Sale
Cover Me Up