On his 19th studio album, the country superstar unintentionally offers a perfect collection of songs for this moment.

By Sarah Rodman
May 07, 2020 at 02:11 PM EDT
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It’s possible that the most popular image conjured when Kenny Chesney’s name comes up is a shirtless, shoeless — and naturally sleeveless — problem-free beachside utopia. It's a lovely, lazy image but perhaps not the most relatable vibe given the current mood.

Under that hakuna matata headline, however, there has always been a much more complicated story. That more three-dimensional image is rounded out by songs — both that the Tennessee native writes and skillfully selects — of romantic wistfulness and regret, battles between rootlessness and structure, a longing to go somewhere, anywhere, everywhere else but also to sit right here with you. The sepia overlay has also always been strong in the 52-year-old singer-songwriter who has lamented living in fast forward but loves nothing more than to time travel backwards in song.

This summer it is unlikely that any of us will be able to participate in one of the most cherished rituals for music fans: going to shows. For an artist who thrives on live performance and a loyal fanbase who make plans around his dates, that’s a stadium-size bummer that very much runs counter to Chesney’s entire concert-as-tiki-bar ethos.

With the current backdrop it’s easy to assume that a new Chesney album might feel tonally dissonant. Yet oddly enough, the just released, Here and Now feels more like a balm for a pandemic-battered soul than a taunt for what cannot be right now.

There is certainly a taste of bittersweetness to the opening track “We Do,” a rousing love letter to his “No Shoes Nation.” But its rallying cries start to feel like sheer hope and a manifesto for the future after a few listens. (Who swears we'll show up when our favorite artists are back and it's deemed safe somehow to see them? We do.) The same follows for many of the album's more lighthearted tracks, like the frothy beach bum jaunt "Happy Does" as a trace of melancholy lacing the celebratory with a hint of gravity they wouldn't otherwise have.

The chugging "China Grove" groove of the title track keeps the momentum going as Chesney does his sort of Caribbean country cowboy spin on Ram Dass reminding us how important it is to be "Here and Now." "Heartbreakers" is firmly in the Chesney "remember when?" wheelhouse and it's painfully easy to see this having been a hip-shaking singalong highlight in a live setting this summer and yet works just as well as a quarantine bop.

The wistfulness begins to creep in on the midtempo ambler "Everyone She Knows," a tightly scripted vignette of a woman of a certain age watching her peers pair, marry, have kids, unsure if she's missing out or if that's even what she wants that pairs the sensibility of Bonnie Rait's "Nick of Time" with the churning guitars of Sheryl Crow's "If it Makes You Happy." (Side note: Given those allusions, this tune written by the Midas-touch trio of Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Ross Copperman seems like a natural fit for a female artist.)

Anyone who's experienced the "doomed-before-it-began" relationship might want to keep some tissue handy for the waltz-time weeper "Knowing You." Co-written by Ed Sheeran, the lazy, sultriness of "Tip of My Tongue," a kissing cousin to his "Come Over," is a sexy ode to longtime love.

The album's peak comes with the heartrending "You Don't Get To," a piercing ballad about that most painful phenomena: the returning ex wearing rose-colored glasses who claims they're sorry, they've changed, they will do better with both parties knowing none of it is true even as the words form.  As heartbreaking as that sounds, that song, like many of those that came before and after it on Here and Now, does one of the most crucial things that music can, make you feel less alone. In a time of literal isolation, it’s hard to quantify how good that can feel.

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