Stars who dominate their genres the way Kenny Chesney has ruled country the past few years usually have two options: They hang on to the formula or they change to something else entirely. (Remember Garth Brooks / Chris Gaines?)
With "Hemingway's Whiskey" (BNA), Chesney tries to do both. He offers plenty of the good-time country anthems fans flock to him for - especially effective with the chugging "Live a Little," built around the chorus "I need to live a little, have some fun, take some time waste it on No. 1," and the clever, island-tinged "Coastal," which twists the idea of "going postal" into going "coastal" and enjoying some time vacationing in Florida.
He also serves up some touching, story-driven ballads, such as the gorgeous, bittersweet "You and Tequila" with Grace Potter, and the struggle-filled "Where I Grew Up."
But Chesney also takes some artistic risks. The first single "The Boys of Fall," a six-minute epic ode to football, is a strange success. On "Small, Y'all," he teams up with George Jones for a playfully weird warning against arguments, that's almost a PSA to stop adult bullying.
Sometimes, that goes a bit too far. On "Somewhere With You," he goes from jam-bandish lite-jazz to an odd, rapid-fire, almost R&B-like delivery. "Seven Days" unspools like it arrived from a Broadway musical gone awry.
However, the energy from the experimenting seems to have helped Chesney recharge, making "Hemingway's Whiskey" his best album since "When the Sun Goes Down."
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BOTTOM LINE Packs a kick, but still goes down smooth