Darn you Chesney, you know I can’t resist acoustic ballads with perspective.
I haven’t been terribly impressed with Kenny Chesney’s output lately, as he seems to be content with releasing “it’s-all-good, can’t-we-stop-fighting” tracks that have very little weight or feeling behind them (“Get Along,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” with David Lee Murphy). For the second single from his latest album Songs For The Saints, however, Chesney finally decided to drop the broad brush strokes and get a little more personal, and the result is “Better Boat,” a breakup-recovery tune featuring harmonies from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. It’s a no-frills, no-nonsense song that offers an honest assessment of the narrator’s life after love, and it connects with the listener in a way few songs have done lately.
Apparently Chesney and Buddy Cannon heard Cole Swindell’s “Break Up In The End” and thought “nah, still too busy,” because the production here is beyond sparse, consisting of nothing more than a pair of acoustic guitars. Forget the classic fiddle-and-steel pairing; the producers even left out the bass and percussion! (There might be something else floating in the background, like a piano or violin, but if they’re there, there’s barely audible and might as well have been left out.) You wouldn’t think there would be much to the mix with so few levers for the producers to pull, but the guitar work is really impressive here, using its bright tone to establish a calm, optimistic atmosphere while mixing in a few minor chords to acknowledge some lingering pain from the separation. This happy/sad mixture does a great job complementing the lyrics and letting them serve as the song’s focal point, and generates just enough energy to keep the song from feeling boring or plodding. Less was definitely more here, and Chesney and Cannon deserve a lot of credit for their stripped-back approach.
As good as the guitar work is, it doesn’t offer much of a safety net if the artists involved can’t carry their share of the load and connect with the audience. However, you don’t last as long as Chesney has in country music without some charisma and honesty in your delivery, and his chops are on full display on “Better Boat.” There’s no range-testing or tongue-busting here—this track is all about emotion, and whether or not the singer can pass along their feelings to their listeners. While a number of artists have failed in this regard lately (Mike Eli, Shay Mooney, Jon Pardi), Chesney smashes through the barrier and drives his point home without breaking a sweat. (For Smith’s part, she adds some nice harmony vocals that blend well with Chesney’s and enhance the reflective tone of the track.) He’s been inconsistent in this regard lately (his recent social commentaries never quite hit the mark, and “Bar At The End Of The World” just felt mailed-in), so this song is a much-needed declaration that Chesney still has a fastball he can go to in a pinch.
The writing here is basically and assessment of the narrator’s state of mind after a traumatic loss of their love (exactly what causes the split is left open to interpretation). The feel here, in a word, is honest: There’s no grandstanding, complaining, or even that much sadness to be found here. Instead, the narrator acknowledges that while the transition to a quiet life of solitude has been tough, he’s developed some effective coping mechanisms and is learning to accept the things he can’t change (hence the hook: “Learning how to build a better boat” to ride the waves of life). By identifying and calling out the narrator’s remaining problems, the song feels more transparent and doesn’t appear to be hiding anything, making lines like “I’m okay with staying home” actually feel truthful (because no one in country music ever seems to be happy staying home). It’s a solid piece of penmanship, and in the hands of a capable veteran like Chesney, the audience buys into the tale 100%.
“Better Boat” seemed to have a lot of hype going into this review, and for the most part it lives up to its billing. The production is sparse but effective, the writing feels thoughtful and honest, and it’s the best performance I’ve heard from Kenny Chesney in quite some time. At a time when newer, younger artists (and whatever Garth Brooks is at this point) are beginning to push the old stalwarts off of the radio (anyone heard from Brad Paisley or Tim McGraw lately?), Chesney makes a strong statement that he’s not ready for retirement just yet.
Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.