Season 2 ‘The Voice’ quarter finalist and Blake Shelton protégé, RaeLynn, has seen her fair share of life at the tender age of 22. Growing up under the glare of reality TV show spotlights, signing and then leaving Big Machine Records and now a marriage to her long term boyfriend – all before the release of ‘Wild Horse’, her debut album, should all be enough to generate enough lyrical content for not only this album but many of the albums yet to come! Indeed ‘Wild Horse’ is a varied look at life through the eyes of at times, a big sister and other times, a best friend, that touches upon all the usual tropes common to people in their late teens and early twenties such as identity, relationships, parents and love yet it’s appeal is broader, wider and more ambitious than that and whilst it is clear that RaeLynn herself is still searching for her own musical identity, this is a debut album of some note that will widen her fan base considerably and afford her the time and experience to grow and learn who she really is and establish her as a unique artist with her own voice.
RaeLynn is very perceptive when she says, “This album contains songs I’ve written over the last four years from when I was 18 to 22 so I like to think of it as my college record.” That time stamping of the album is very important in understanding who she is right now. She is credited with writing credits on 11 of the 12 songs on ‘Wild Horse’ and, just like many people’s experience of college or university, there is a lot of experimentation going on as she tries out different styles and different voices in her journey towards finding out which artist she is going to become.
The Taylor Swift influences are in evidence on tracks like ‘Your Heart’, ‘Love Triangle’ and ‘Diamonds’. All three tracks share a lyrical honesty reminiscent of Swift and in ‘Love Triangle’ RaeLynn has been able to produce an evocative and heartfelt look at divorce from a child’s point of view that manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. ‘Diamonds’ contains the sort of lyrical cleverness that is the hallmark of Taylor Swift’s work with lines like, ‘A diamond’s just a diamond till you put it on the right left hand.” The song is underpinned by a tasteful guitar that is lifted right out of ‘Highway Don’t Care,’ but don’t get me wrong, this is not plagiarism, this is respect and influence filtering down through the generations.
Other tracks, like ‘Graveyard’ and ‘Trigger’ show us RaeLynn’s funkier side, channelling her inner Carrie Underwood, particularly on the former, which is full of Southern bombast and niggly slide guitars. Both songs follow that Underwood model of quieter verses followed by the big, break out chorus.
Then there is the Miranda influenced ‘Young’, all steel guitar, Southern imagery and flawed perspectives. “I want to wake up in yesterday’s make up,” RaeLynn sings, showing us she is far from the perfect Barbie doll pop-star wannabee that reality TV shows often try and foist upon the gullible public.
Some songs share a lineage with artists outside of the genre. The title track, ‘Wild Horse’ could easily be a Katy Perry song if you removed the Country instruments. It begins all finger clicks and vocal ‘Heys!’ whilst Raelynn sings about strength and determination. “Baby, I’m a wild horse, don’t try and tame me,’ she warns in a track driven forward by the drum beat but underpinned by some nice guitar work that if removed, would lead us into Katy Perry territory.
‘Insecure’ sees RaeLynn moving into Cole Swindell, ‘Nightclub Country’ mode. It has more modern rhythms and programming and less southern drawl, similar to that almost disco-like Country that many male artist of the last few years have explored. A darker mood and tongue twister lyrics, this will appeal to many modern fans of this style as will ‘Lonely Call’, another modern sounding song about long distance relationships and the fickle nature of men and their feelings. ‘Lonely Call’ sees RaeLynn exploring slightly older themes and places her more in the role of big sister and confidant – giving us a glimpse of where future songs and albums may well lead her.
That ability to move across themes and swap personas is nowhere more in evidence than on ‘The Apple’. This track is lighter in tone and all Kelsea Ballerini innocence. A breezy song about temptation and kissing boys, it sort of feels oddly out of place, positioned as it is between the darker ‘Insecure’ and the more grown up, ‘Young’. This is a rare misfire for RaeLynn and I wonder whether it was one of the first tracks written for the album because it feels a little too naïve, too playful in amongst such a set of heartfelt and at times, serious, songs.
Label mates Dan & Shay pop up towards the end of ‘Wild Horse’ on a ballad that sounds like it could have easily been one of their songs. ‘Say’ starts quietly with just Raelynn and an acoustic guitar but then breaks out in a big chorus full of electric guitars and wailing harmonies. It is a great example of smooth, modern pop Country and shows us another side to her, another aspect to her ability.
Album closer, “Praying For Rain’, is perfectly placed at track 12 and is a perfect example of what ‘Wild Horse’ stands for. A song about the search for individuality and the meaning behind life. “I’m talking to God, prayin’ for rain,” RaeLynn sings on what is the longest song on the album at just over four minutes. It’s a simple song with modern programming and not a lot of traditional instruments but as an ambassador for ‘Wild Horse’ and a closing of this chapter of her life, RaeLynn couldn’t have picked a better ‘last new song’ for us to hear before her next project. Simple yet ambitious, hinting at future growth, maturity and experimentation, ‘Praying for Rain’ makes songs like ‘The Apple’ almost redundant, being so far removed from each other, as they are.
As a debut album and an introduction to her work, RaeLynn has produced, with ‘Wild Horse’, an exceptional album. Fun in places, dark in others. Lyrics that make you smile and others that make you think. Songs you can dance to and songs you can drink to, which, after-all, is about the best description of what Country music is to me. Who the real RaeLynn is has yet to be seen. Is it the sharp, lyrical wordsmith in the vein of Taylor Swift? Is it the bombastic Southern, no holds barred, love me or hate version of Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood? Or is she a more modern, more innocent sisterly best friend like Kelsea Ballerini? Time will only tell, but what is certain is that ‘Wild Horse’ will give her the time, experience and fan base that every artist requires in order to grow and develop a voice and life will provide her with opportunities to write – she has the talent and the voice to be able to do something special with all that comes her way, so watch this space, and let’s hope this is just the start of a long and fruitful journey.
James Daykin (@rockjames)