album review

Sorry, But Get Used to Morgan Wallen

Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA

“I think I’ve lost myself a little bit. I’ve tried to find joy in the wrong places, and … it’s left me with less joy.” In a video message posted on Instagram in early October, Tennessee singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen stared piercingly into the camera searching for the words to explain how a whirlwind year — one in which his 2018 debut album, If I Know Me, went platinum; his single “7 Summers” became a viral smash on social media; his son, Indigo, was born; and his Saturday Night Live debut was to take place in an episode hosted by Bill Burr — had seemingly gone off the rails. Pictures of Wallen kissing strangers and partying maskless with fans in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a night when UA’s Crimson Tide rinsed Texas A&M’s Aggies 52-24 had caused the long-running sketch-comedy show to pull the country star from the Burr episode and replace him with Jack White, citing a breach of COVID-19 safety protocol. It wasn’t Wallen’s first slipup: In May, he was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct after being kicked out of Kid Rock’s honky-tonk in Tennessee and arguing outside when bouncers asked him to leave, an incident that produced a mug shot where the singer effected the perfect visage of party-boy vacancy. A few days after the arrest, Wallen took to IG to post a fragment of a song he’d written about the recent tumult, a lilting acoustic jam where he worried he was losing control: “I don’t wanna go downtown doing what we used to / Twist the top off another round, hell, I got enough loose screws.” Speaking with Nashville radio personality Bobby Bones the same week, the performer suggested his reputation for partying had gotten the best of him.

“Dangerous,” the song about the arrest, turned into the title track for the 27-year-old’s sophomore album, out this week, nestled between “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt,” a toast to the revitalizing powers of the church and the bar, and “Beer Don’t,” a country-rock ode to the party-rocking properties of cold brew. On Dangerous: The Double Album, Wallen mines the late-night antics that nearly derailed his career for ideas — over 30 reflections on beer, bars, bartenders, whiskey, and women — leaning into the heartbreaking barfly image he’s created for himself and periodically speaking to the price of wanting to be the life of the party. Dangerous is also a powerful ploy for the kind of country-chart dominance enjoyed by Wallen’s fellow Voice alumnus Luke Combs, a smart, slippery collection of tunes where loud rock guitars, slick Nashville production, bluegrass picking, traditional country weepers, and trap-drum programming commingle, the kind of place where Diplo is just as welcome as Chris Stapleton, where a song by Jason Isbell is seated cozily next to a song written with country-radio killer Shane McAnally. Sleeker than Stapleton and Eric Church, but marginally more reverent to traditional country than the latest from Thomas Rhett, with Dangerous, Wallen seeks a precarious middle ground by inviting all of these peers around (via guest vocals, co-writes, or covers), and frequently succeeds, though the narrowness of his subject matter can undercut the ambitious breadth of the sound that he achieves. Where, on If I Know Me, the then-untested star was happy to duet with pop-country hybridizers Florida Georgia Line, here, he’s after the keys to the kingdom.

With help from hitmakers like Luke Laird, Michael Hardy, Rhett (and his father, Rhett Akins), McAnally, and Ben Burgess, Wallen sharpens the pop smarts and rock swagger displayed on If I Know Me to a point, delivering songs that are tuneful and reflective, sentimental and direct. In “Warning,” he wishes that bad-idea hookups came with cautionary labels, like whiskey bottles. Pining for an ex in “865,” he suggests that he’s tasting her memory when he drinks. It’s trite but effective and relatable, packed with catchy turns of phrase that stick as much as the melodies guiding them. The better story-songs ditch this universality in favor of speaking to dilemmas unique to Wallen. “More Surprised Than Me” is a song about the inability to shake people’s incredulous stares when he steps out with a woman who looks and dresses better, and how he gets it because he can’t believe she would choose him either. “Livin’ the Dream” is about feeling trapped by his rock-star image but understanding that there are many people who would kill for the spot he’s complaining about: “Between alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline, I don’t ever get no rest / Sign my life away to be the life of the party, yeah, to everybody else.” Wallen stops short of making woe-is-me songs; he knows he has it good, and he looks and behaves the way he does by choice. He’s only communicating that for every rager there’s a raging hangover and explaining, as a new father, how the life he built for himself is physically and emotionally taxing and badly in need of restructuring.

There aren’t enough moments like that on Dangerous. The double album is more concerned with hitting all the necessary emotional beats other big pop-country albums clear: hometown pride, backwoods bona fides, bashful interest, regretful longing, drunken glory. In a four-song stretch toward the end of the album, he delivers three songs about the same subject, celebrating his small-town Tennessee roots in “Somethin’ Country,” “Country A$$ Shit,” and “Whatcha Think of Country Now.” It’s there that Dangerous proves its mettle: Wallen stomps through the tracks with not just perfect vocal control but a sneering effortlessness, employing double-time rapper flows in “Somethin’ Country” (without the stiffness that made similar efforts by industry peers like Blake Shelton seem labored in comparison) and leaning into his southern drawl as he presides over a down-home party scene in “Country A$$ Shit.” All the while, his band swerves from intricate acoustic interplay to big rock choruses with the ease of gliding onto a highway from an on-ramp. They’re firing on all cylinders: “Neon Eyes” and “Livin’ the Dream” honor the brisk, tom-heavy Americana of Fleetwood Mac. “Heartless” and “Warning” play off the neat electric-guitar loops fueling the big Shawn Mendes hits; “This Bar” touches on Mumford-esque folk-pop. “Need a Boat” revisits the love of bluegrass music that drew Wallen to learn violin as a child, this after the CMT-ready tearjerker “Me on Whiskey.”

Dangerous finds Morgan Wallen trying to be everything to everyone, shoring up his sound for country audiences even as he pokes around outside of the genre. This balancing act is prickly; some fans of the original one-man demo of the title track that blew up on TikTok didn’t care for the sleek, tasteful electric guitars added to the album version. Hours after Dangerous was released, fans popped into the comments of an IG video from June where Wallen performed “Wasted on You” alone on acoustic guitar to beg him to release that version on streaming services, turned off by the waltz-timed trap drums that made it onto the album. Last year, on Diplo’s Snake Oil, “Heartless” was a trap-pop jam that got its country flavor from the singer’s twang; on Dangerous, it’s more like a big-band cover of itself adapted for stadium play. There are people who want Wallen to be a romantic, acoustic-guitar boyfriend type, singing songs that feel like private conversations, and people who want him to tow the line as a country-chart phenom, people who relish in his late-night antics and people who think he needs to get his shit together. With Dangerous, Wallen communicates that he knows what everyone’s saying and makes a good go at keeping them all happy, landing, in the process, on a flexible sound that blends pop, rock, country, and more with panache, a sound that, with ample opportunities to fail, is often engaging and never anything less than fun. Given a second chance to prove what he’s made of, Morgan Wallen uses Dangerous to show it all off at once.

*A version of this article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Sorry, But Get Used to Morgan Wallen