Prolific isn’t quite the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind when discussing the recording career of Kenny Chesney, who has released 21 album’s – 17 studio, and 4 compilations – over the 23 years he has been active in the country music scene. Prolificacy can prove to be a double-edged sword though, as there is always the risk that with high quantity comes low quality, be that trade-off real or imagined. Listening to Cosmic Hallelujah – Chesney’s 17th studio release – it is hard not to conclude that that trade-off is, indeed, very real.
At a quick glance, there is nothing overtly wrong with the 12 tracks collected here; they’re a little bland to be sure, adhering to every other negative stereotype about country music and its tropes, but the production is top-notch and the performances professional. Even the album’s theme of living for today seems perfectly serviceable on the surface, but once the listener drills down on the content it starts to become contradictory and confused.
By virtue of being the album’s lead single, Noise acts as Cosmic Hallelujah’s mission statement, with the song lamenting modern society’s addiction to technology and constant stimulation, labelling these things as “noise” that individuals must contend with and add to. Yet the rest of the record is full of beer and whiskey, bars and parties – as on Setting the World on Fire (featuring P!nk), Bar at the End of the World, and Bucket – which could easily be construed as means of escapist “noise” themselves, contradicting the album’s central thesis.
Bucket is the most enjoyable song on Cosmic Hallelujah, with its core message of changing the ‘B’ to an ‘F’ on your bucket list – do ya get it? – and letting go of life’s anxieties, but I kept getting stuck on the fact that ‘it’ is spelt with and ‘I’ not an ‘E’ – the things we choose to care about. Jesus and Elvis – a track that revolves around the story of a family that lost their only son to war – feels calculated to appeal to the conservative nature of country music’s core audience, while also distracting them from the album’s more ‘progressive’ elements to which they might otherwise object to.
With a seven-figure annual income, it is a brave choice for Chesney to bemoan a desire for material wealth and comfort without irony on Rich and Miserable. In a country that doesn’t have a living wage to speak of, with the working poor needing to work 2 or 3 jobs to keep a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table, it seems a rather tone-deaf message to be putting out there. And speaking of brave, closing the record with a cover of Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is, was certainly a bold choice, but Chesney lacks the vocal range and expressiveness to pull it off, leaving Cosmic Hallelujah to end on a bum note.