The album is Hunt's first since his 2014 breakout debut 'Montevallo'

By Maura Johnston
April 03, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT
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MCA Nashville

Sam Hunt's second album has been a long time coming. Since his debut, 2014's Montevallo, the country singer has ridden the singles-heavy streaming wave to massive success: In 2017, Hunt released the winking "Body Like A Back Road," which was big enough to hit No. 1 on multiple Billboard year-end country charts, and nab him that year's Top Country Artist title.

In the ensuing years, Hunt dropped a handful of songs that blended Nashville tropes — heartbroken lyrics, straightforwardly twangy vocals, big choruses — with sampled hooks, hip-hop-inspired beats, and cadences that subtly resemble rap. Those, along with "Body" and a few new tracks, are collected on Southside, his second album. Southside is, for most of its 12 songs, a showcase for Hunt's affable charm and playlist-era approach to making music. "Hard to Forget" flips the 1953 ballad "There Stands the Glass," by honky-tonker Webb Pierce into a reggae-lite beat, giving Hunt some heat over which he can outline his angst over a lost love. "Kinfolks" is a snappy devotional, its bright guitars framing Hunt's joy at finding a partner who he wants to introduce to everyone he knows. The lightly glum "Breaking Up Was Easy In the '90s," meanwhile, finds Hunt musing over romance's tendency to tether people (like himself) to their phones in a sung-spoken cadence. While its central claim does betray his '80s-baby naïvété, his depiction of being lost in a social-media fugue state is relatable to anyone who's stared glassy-eyed at Instagram during an insomniac spell.

"That Ain't Beautiful" is the only real misstep on the record, with Hunt taking on the tone of a passive-aggressive email to a frenemy as he tut-tuts the wayward behavior — wearing too much makeup, taking Adderall, overspending, being a lousy wedding guest — of a young woman over atmospheric guitars. "That ain't beautiful/ that ain't you/ You can do better," he croons in between laundry lists of her sins. It sounds pretty on its surface, and it'll probably be a big hit among people who are frustrated with their intimates and need to work those issues out through song (oh, for the days of MySpace pages' embedded music!), but its pettiness and lack of narrative arc feel off.

Perhaps it was included because of the apologies that bracket the record, and Hunt's belief in redemption. Opening track "2016" is a spacious ballad about giving up the vices that made a year in his love life difficult, Hunt's penitent vocal breaking over gently picked guitar and pedal steel.  And "Drinkin' Too Much," a 2017 single that closes Southside, is disarmingly straightforward about the way Hunt's career affected a relationship. It has a happy ending — as evidenced not just by the optimistic piano riff that rises up after it initially fades out, but by the fact that he married the woman its lyrics were aimed at, Hannah Lee Fowler, a few months after its release — that gives an extra lift to its portrayals of modern life and love.  B+

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