At long last! We have new music from the ever-divisive pop-country poster boy, Sam Hunt. There’s no doubt that his debut album ‘Montevallo’ pioneered a new era in country music, introducing the fusion of R&B rhythms and pop grooves with country lyricism, which many have attempted since but few have been able to match. When we look back on the last decade, Sam Hunt is one of the prominent figures, having developed his own genre and sent shockwaves through the country world with monstrous streaming figures and chart success. No pressure on ‘Southside’, then, 6 years later…
‘Southside’ continues Sam Hunt’s R&B-infused creative flair; an amalgamation of mainstream influences with country-leaning storytelling, often with a fair amount of country instrumentation too. On songs like ‘2016’ and ‘Sinning With You’, we see the reflective, vulnerable side of Sam’s music, and there’s also a tip of the hat to the roots of the genre, with ‘Hard To Forget’ and the banjo/pedal steel backing in ‘Let It Down’. It’s unapologetically divisive, brave, and exactly what you would expect from a new Sam Hunt album. At the risk of alienating the traditionalists, it’s important to review a Sam Hunt release purely as a Sam Hunt body of work, and there’s a lot to admire here, regardless of genre.
There are 4 producers credited on the album – Zach Crowell, Luke Laird, Bryce Cain and Charlie Handsome – and that’s reflected in the varied nature of the album with the lack of distinct synergy. It’s a real mix of styles that keeps you guessing from start to finish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One aspect that does remain consistent is Sam’s tight group of songwriters, including familiar names like Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally and the aforementioned Zach Crowell. He’s an artist who very much likes to work within his comfort zone as far as writing is concerned. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Opening track ‘2016’ is the strongest track on offer and arguably the best song Sam has released to date. It introduces a theme of reconciliation which runs throughout the album in different aspects, and a longing to make up for past mistakes. It’s as heartfelt and vulnerable as Sam’s music has ever been, and takes us right back to the writing room with the stripped-back approach to the production. It proves that underneath the synthetic sounds we hear elsewhere, there’s a superb songsmith in there with some real heart and soul, and it’s a really refreshing way to kick off the album.
It doesn’t take long for Sam to kick into his familiar gears though, beginning with ‘Hard To Forget’ which has already provoked lots of discussion. The use of a 1953 Webb Pierce sample of ‘There Stands The Glass’ combined with an in-your-face, hip-hop-esque beat is an acquired taste and won’t be for everyone, but it succeeds in becoming an almost annoying but effective earworm that has all the ingredients for another smash radio hit, in the same way that ‘Body Like A Back Road’ took the country world by storm back in 2017.
Certain parts of the album really give us a glimpse into the rather dark, introspective side to Sam Hunt’s personality, with deep stories about lost love, regret and wistfulness. ‘Young Once’ is one of the album’s high points, with Sam longing to live life to the max with a girl, and to look back later in life assured that they made the most of their youthful years. The acoustic, soulful verse leads into a powerful, explosive chorus with some Daft Punk-esque futuristic sounds. No holding back, but it works.
‘That Ain’t Beautiful’ switches things up, putting the focus on the girl involved, rather than himself. This one will get people talking, with its almost Bieber-like fusion of acoustic guitar with click tracks and an atmospheric R&B feel. It takes typical ‘social media-famous girl’ image and tells her in a rather accusative manner that the “make-up” and “pictures of your good side” doesn’t show off her attractiveness. An interesting way to approach the topic which could be received in different ways.
Much like ‘2016’ with its stripped-back production, ‘Sinning With You’ is one of the album’s strongest points. It’s a moody, once again introspective look back at a past love, where he felt a sense of freedom and defiance when getting up to no good, feeling like he could “talk to God in the morning”. Again, it’s full of R&B influences, but this kind of exposed production brings out the best in Sam as a vocalist.
‘Breaking Up In The 90’s’ will no doubt be a huge fan favourite and is a pretty safe bet for a future single release. Reminiscent of the choruses of radio-friendly singles like ‘Make You Miss Me’ and ‘Leave The Night On’, it’s a typical Sam Hunt amalgamation of rap verses leading to an anthemic chorus. A hugely catchy, instantly likeable track that sounds like a #1 radio hit right from the first listen, with a nice touch of traditional instrumentation in there too.
The one major frustration with the album is the lack of new material. It’s becoming a regular thing nowadays, but having the likes of ‘Drinkin’ Too Much’ and ‘Body Like A Back Road’ on the album, both of which were released as standalones in 2017, leaves us feeling a little short-changed.
Having said that, there’s more than enough here to keep Sam Hunt’s fans happy, and surely another couple of huge radio hits in ‘2016’ and ‘Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90’s’, which he needed after the disappointing performance of ‘Downtown’s Dead’. The project will be as divisive as ever, blurring the genre lines more than ever before, but love him or hate him, Sam Hunt is the best at what he does, and ‘Southside’ is a successful progression from one of the biggest albums the genre has ever seen in ‘Montevallo’.
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