Ernest has made it clear that this isn’t the second half of the album Flower Shops, which came out in spring 2022 and was reviewed here. What is an album anyway in 2023: a platter to pick vol-au-vents from, or a complete artistic statement?
Thirteen new tunes have been served up by the burly Ernest, and I’ll treat them like a discrete album. This the opening track is This Fire, which is a drink-sozzled honky-tonker written with, of all people, LA pop supremo and Thomas Rhett’s buddy Julian Bunetta. The verses are in 4/4 time and the chorus is in 6/8 time, which is good writing.
Songs We Used To Sing was chosen to announce the project, perhaps because it was written with Charles Kelley and because it’s one of many, many MANY songs that quote other songs that are easily accessible on a Spotify playlist underneath Songs We Used To Sing. The poor chap ‘can’t go to Broadway’ because the bands are playing those songs that remind Ernest of his ex. The song has a proper middle eight, which is good writing again.
Listening to the album, which is of the highest Music Row quality, I did wonder if Ernest’s own personality is subsumed, given that his job is to write songs which might end up on a Morgan Wallen album. A lot of these songs could fit on Wallen’s upcoming third LP, which is handy because Ernest is joining him on his world tour so the pair can sing Flower Shops together.
It isn’t just Hardy, who is also on that tour, who can turn a hook these days, as Ernest displays on songs like Hill, which is about a ranch ‘next to Nowhere, Tennessee’ that becomes ‘a hill I could die on’. There’s a melodic chorus on Burn Out which is enhanced by Joey Moi’s organic production, and Nothin To Lose, a carpe diem song with a gorgeous dominant-seventh chord in the chorus.
The shuffling and delectable Wild Wild West has that old George Strait twang and snare rimshot that evokes 1991. Handily, Hall of Famer Dean Dillon (who wrote all the King’s classics) appears as a vocalist as well as a songwriter on What Have I Got To Lose. All the ingredients of a classic Dean Dillon tune are present: a lyrical hook in the title (‘since losing you…’), a downtrodden narrator, a rhyme of ‘silhouette/cigarette’ and a discrete chorus that sounds different from the verse. I wonder how much Ernest and Brian Kelley, who also bragged his way into that writing session, learned from the undisputed heavyweight of his age.
Since country music supports the alcohol industry, there are four titles with an explicit reference to drinking: Done At A Bar starts with eight bars of pedal steel to set up a hymn to the local establishment; Drunk With My Friends is a series of apologies for making his partner ‘pissed, pissed, pissed’, which seems to feature the French-sounding narrator from Spongebob Squarepants; and Anything But Sober, a stoner’s song which rhymes ‘ten milligrams/in my hand’.
The outro of Heartache In My 100 Proof – a song on which Ernest is joined by Jake Worthington and which is basically a new way of saying ‘there’s a tear in my beer’ – has pedal steel and twanging electric guitar trading bars. It effectively carries across the heartache without the need for lyrics.
Lyrics are central to the final pair of songs. Unhang The Moon is a breakup song to rival Flower Shops (on purpose, I think) that has plenty of sadness in the arrangement to underscore the narrator’s dashed dreams. Miss That Girl, with its singsong melody, is certain to be sung a cappella by the time Ernest finishes up the Wallen tour. I expect, as with Hardy and Wallen, he’ll pop over to the UK at some point to bring some Big Loud Country to our shores.