The first few bars of Kenny Chesney’s new album, The Road and the Radio, will cause some listeners to make sure they cued up the right CD. The title track opens the album with an ambient wash of synthesizer that could be the intro to a tune by indie-rockers Sigur Ros or Death Cab for Cutie. As the wave of sound rolls in, it’s pierced by short, high-pitched bleats that are the audio equivalent of a laser light flashing across a singer’s face, a car whizzing by a bus on the interstate, or a radio transmitter cutting through the atmosphere.
It’s a progressive, attention-getting intro, and it kicks off Chesney’s most ambitious album yet. The record isn’t a crossover move or a giant creative leap. It’s simply one of country’s most savvy stars continuing his transition from a singer of crisply conceived singles into an album artist who looks at each project as an opportunity to push forward and dig a little deeper.
Part of the East Tennessee native’s move from B-level singer to megastar hinged on his ability to balance feel-good anthems with searching lyrics that rang true to Middle America. Ballads like “The Good Stuff” and “That’s Why I’m Here” propelled Chesney as much as breezy island tunes like “When the Sun Goes Down” and cheerful rockers like “Young.”
On The Road and the Radio, he remains a committed populist and a consummate radio star who picks songs with an ear for what will work on the air and onstage. But after 2004’s acoustic sidestep, Be As You Are, he obviously wants to put more of himself into his ballads.
The ballads on the new record often sound more personal, the introspection more diaristic than generic. The title tune, written by Chesney and Casey Beathard, is a stunner—and perfect for a singer who seemed to achieve his greatest goals in the last year by sweeping the Entertainer of the Year trophies and marrying a famous actress he’d named several years earlier as his ideal woman. But living out dreams brings new realities, and success is never as sweet as it seems from afar. When Chesney opens his album with the couplet, “Ain’t nothin’ out here but me, the road and the radio / Lookin’ for an exit and a song that I might know,” it resonates largely due to the subtle emotion he brings to it.
With each album, Chesney has become a better singer by realizing how much feeling can be expressed through restraint, intonation and phrasing. By the time he sings, “Happiness is a destination that’s hard to find / It may take some time,” he conveys with beautiful economy that achieving one’s goals doesn’t insulate anyone from loneliness or disappointment.
The album’s closer, “Like Me,” bookends the opening track while taking a different tack on the same subject. It begins by detailing the travails of a no-name striver working an endless road; it ends by putting those same details in a larger philosophical context. The final verses come from a veteran who still could be passing the hat in bars—or who could be pulling away from a sold-out arena in his tour bus. It doesn’t matter, because on one level, both protagonists look at up-and-comers with the same recognition. “I meet a lot of wannabes / Dreaming big and living free like me,” Chesney sings with a wistfulness that underscores the disparity between dreams and real life.
To be sure, The Road and the Radio serves the gods in the title. There are catchy guitar tunes of the sort that galvanize Chesney’s arena show. There’s the sandy escapism of beach songs “Tequila Likes Me” and “Beer in Mexico” that serve the middle-class fantasy of getting away from it all in a sunny, exotic locale. And there’s the by-now patented nostalgia of “Who You’d Be Today” and “In a Small Town.”
Yet despite these concessions, Chesney continues to reach beyond his safety zones with each successive album. No one in music today has worked harder to earn a begrudging respect from his or her critics and peers. The Road and the Radio suggests that he’s not done working, or climbing, yet.