Morgan Wallen remains one of the most divisive figures in the modern country landscape, the polarity he provokes only exacerbated by his status as the genre’s most dominant and popular artist. Many of the genre’s commentators and listeners feel uncomfortable with the unhindered ascendency Wallen has enjoyed despite his chequered past, which came to a head in 2021 when a video emerged of the Sneedville native using a racial slur outside his home. Although he was momentarily suspended from his label, and the country world showed a united front in condemning his actions, Wallen’s 2021 album, Dangerous, went on to become the first album ever to spend 100 weeks in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200.
The Lead-Up to ‘One Thing At A Time
This meteoric rise has been further accelerated by the singles that Wallen has released in the lead-up to his new album, ‘One Thing At A Time.’ The infectious, beat-driven ‘You Proof’ is the longest-running Billboard Country Airplay Chart No. 1 of all time, while Wallen’s more recent release, ‘Last Night’, shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
The Artist vs. The Art: A Perpetual Dilemma
It’s an age-old dilemma. Can we ever – and should we ever – truly separate the artist from their art? Particularly when an artist is so intertwined with their work, it seems an ever-problematic question to answer. It’s one that becomes even more gnarled and knotted with ‘One Thing At A Time.’ Unlike Dangerous, Wallen tackles a number of his discretions head-on – conveying a notion of remorse through his work for the first time.
A Diverse Sonic Palette
As a whole, the album incorporates a colorful, pick-n-mix variety of stylistic influences and genres, from the moreish synth-pop of ‘One Thing At A Time’ to Wallen’s honeyed homage to the Allman Brothers Band, ‘Everything I Love’. When it was announced that ‘One Thing At A Time’ would comprise a staggering 36 tracks, expanding on the measly 30 that Dangerous offered, there was a concern that it would be littered with filler and repetitive material. But on the new project, virtually every track jostles for candidacy as a future No. 1.
Standout Tracks and Creative Collaborations
‘Sunrise’ sounds like something 2000s-era Usher would’ve released if he went into country music – on paper, it should be an utter abomination, an ill-timed relic of the Florida Georgia Line Bro-Country era. But bizarrely, Wallen’s simmering delivery and the swaggering trap beat fuse seamlessly, creating a guilty-pleasure anthem that will bring Wallen even more success in the summer. Another highlight is the inventive, Eric Church-assisted ‘Man Made A Bar’, which finds Wallen playfully adding an extra series of steps to the Biblical story of creation.
Moments of Lyrical Weakness
Occasionally, some of the songs fall a little flat lyrically, with the incisive wordplay that pervaded hits such as ‘Whiskey Glasses’ and ‘865’ being momentarily lost amidst a handful of lazy rhymes.
A Deeper, More Intimate Wallen
While a spirit of experimentation pervades ‘One Thing At A Time’, at the same time, Wallen also satisfies the traditional strands of his earlier material. ‘Tennessee Fan’ serves as the sequel to ‘Had Me By Halftime’, while the heartbroken ‘Days That End In Why’ would slide relatively inconspicuously onto the first half of Dangerous. Nonetheless, ‘One Thing At A Time’ is jam-packed with electrifying earworms that test a bigger, more diverse sound than we heard on Dangerous.
An Artistic Evolution
But musically, the bar is already high for Wallen – we know he and his songwriting team can churn out No. 1s with more success than most. The real litmus test for ‘One Thing At A Time’ was whether he could dig deeper than before, to showcase a level of intimacy and vulnerability we had only caught glimpses of previously. He delivers this on the bookends of ‘Born With A Beer In My Hand’ and ‘Dying Man’, both of which find him attempting to take ownership of previous mistakes. ‘Don’t Think Jesus’ reflects this sentiment through the stained-glass window of a long-forgotten chapel, producing a vibrant elegy of repentance.
A New Direction
In conclusion, what is most appealing about ‘One Thing At A Time’ is the subtle shift in mentality away from the angsty and often abrasive approach that fueled Dangerous. On the new album, Wallen instead looks inwards, berating himself for not picking up his bedside Bible enough (‘I Wrote The Book’, ‘Don’t Think Jesus’), and taking a real good look in the mirror in the aftermath of another broken relationship (‘Me + All Your Reasons’). Unquestionably, ‘One Thing At A Time’ won’t sufficiently change the minds of those who still feel Wallen shouldn’t be on the pedestal he finds himself on – and it is important to continue probing and discussing the broader implications of his success both in and for country music as a whole. However you may feel about his effort to understand and grow from his past behavior, we must at the very least acknowledge that he has achieved an unthinkable artistic feat. With ‘One Thing At A Time’, Wallen has crafted an album that is more lyrically intricate, emotionally mature, and sonically fulfilling than his record-breaking, standard-setting opus.