Kenny Chesney’s “Life On a Rock”: Hot music take!

The album: Kenny Chesney, “Life on a Rock”
Genre: Cheese-and-bacon-wrapped country
Verdict: Country music for people who are scared of country music

Why do you listen to music? It’s an important question, one that occurred to me as I was listening to Kenny Chesney’s latest. Chesney gets slotted in with country musicians, which is correct enough, though he owes far more to Jimmy Buffett than he does to Johnny Cash. But while he employs the usual elements of country music — storytelling verse, singalong chorus, guitars aplenty — whatever soul there might be is buried under the crushing weight of friendly chord changes, wistful fake-nostalgia lyrics and genre-appropriate instruments. This is the Applebee’s of music: safe, easily digestible and only vaguely memorable. Every CD should come with a side of honey-mustard dipping sauce.

Here, let me demonstrate. You can check out the opening track, “Pirate Flag,” in the video above. Hit play as you read this, and let’s see if we can tick off the crowd-pleasing marks that Chesney hits in this song:

• Beachy ukelekes, to put you in the right frame of mind
• Reference to coming from, yep, a “little bitty homegrown small town”
• Moonshine that makes you want to get naked, which would seem to be the basis for some ugly court cases
• Getting on a Greyhound bus to leave this world behind
• Finding sun and sand, of course
• References to spending his whole life running around, while the wind still blows him … um, around (interesting: “around” rhymes with “around”)
• Something about a note in a bottle to a long-legged model, which makes no damn sense at all
• Finding love with an “island girl” and living beneath a “pirate flag,” which in these days of Somali pirates is probably not a good idea
• Those crazy “friends back home” wonder what he’s doing, as friends do
• References to rum, blender, salt air, local bars, sails and other beachy-type things
• Absolutely no references to, you know, working or paying for this paradise or anything like that. At least Zac Brown’s “Toes” was honest, that you get your ass booted back stateside when the money runs out.

This is Mary Sue wanking, pure and simple. (Stick with me here: there are people who write fan fiction of their favorite genres: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Twilight, et cetera. And when they do, they always insert a character who’s basically a stand-in for the author, a character who happens to be just the tiniest bit smarter and wittier than all the characters, while getting to romance certain ones and one-up others. Kenny Chesney — or, more properly, the character named “Kenny Chesney” — is, like Jimmy Buffett before him, the middle-aged white guy’s Mary Sue.

Which, granted, is a very lucrative role to play. Who doesn’t want to chuck it all and head for the sun and sand? (Preferably on something a little less aromatic than a bus, though.) The thing with Chesney is that it’s all so calculated, the way that chain restaurants ladle on adjectives (applewood-smoked bacon! Southwestern roasted-corn salsa!) to shorthand you right into the right frame of mind.

You generally shouldn’t judge an album by its song titles, but in this case, you’d probably be on target: “When I See This Bar” is a story about, yep, a bar. “Spread the Love” is a faux-reggae joint about — you guessed it — spreading love (First lyric: “All God’s children gotta come together”). And hey, while it must be nice to have the coin to hire the Wailers and Willie Nelson, you’d wish they had more to work with than in-the-pocket impersonations of themselves. It’s like meeting DeNiro in a restaurant and asking him to do “You talking to me?”

Look, bottom line: this is a perfectly serviceable album, one that absolutely makes me want to go grab a margarita and hang in the sunshine. Plenty of white folks dreaming of beaches will be playing this through their Bluetoothed ipods by the pool all summer long. But they’re going to have a hard time remembering the last song that played as soon as the next one starts.

Jay

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