Sam Hunt | Southside | (UMG)
3 out of 5
Sam Hunt hasn’t released an album in nearly six years. And it’s already been three years since “Body Like a Back Road” (written with Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Zach Crowell) smashed chart and streaming records. When a sophomore effort wasn’t soon to follow, the genre-buster left many puzzled and wondering what he was thinking.
What appeared to be a one-off single, “Drinkin’ Too Much” (written with McAnally, Crowell, and Stuart Hine) fell out of the sky in early 2017. He then went radio silent ─ again. In 2018, he reemerged with the tepidly-received “Downtown’s Dead” (written with Crowell, Osborne, McAnally, and Charlie Handsome), a rhythmic shaker longing for a lover’s touch. Now, with his newly-crowned No. 1 “Kinfolks” (a co-write with Crowell, Osborne, and Jerry Flowers), which reads as a Montevallo b-side refashioned for 2020, he has reclaimed his radio staple status.
Perhaps, it’s for the better. With country radio still a necessary tool for many of Nashville’s elite, Hunt not regaining traction before releasing an album could have been a huge mistake. This week, he returns with his sophomore outing Southside, a 12-track lineup which never quite lands as effectively as Montevallo ─ as a body of work. Yet when Hunt revs up all his engines, he hits an impressive stride.
Leading into the release, he tossed out various other breadcrumbs, including “Sinning with You” (co-written with Osborne, Paul DiGiovanni, and Emily Weisband), a plaintive mid-tempo braiding together acoustic guitar with a palpitating backbeat. “Your place or my place / His grace and your grace / Felt like the same thing to me,” he questions his faith and a blossoming romance, the pull as natural as gravity.
Written with McAnally, Osborne, Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, Audrey Grisham, Mary Jean Shurtz, and Russ Hull, appetizer “Hard to Forget” samples Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” and primes the listener for Hunt’s next-level genre-bending. Traditionalists scoff, but credit is due in excavating a nearly 70-year old honky-tonk hit many likely forgot. “Let It Down” (written with Osborne, Crowell, Chris La Corte, and Ernest K. Smith) marries classic and contemporary in much the same way, employing rumbling pedal steel and guitar into a progressive pop-country tapestry.
Album opener “2016” (written with Crowell and Josh Thompson) is among Hunt’s most surprising entries to-date. “I’d cover up the pool at Skymont / I’d take some girls out of my phone / Give the nightlife back to Nashville / One night at a time ’til all the regrets gone,” he sings through a somber neon hue. A single acoustic guitar his only weapon, he dismantles all doubts about his abilities to rip your heart out.
Southside, produced primarily by Crowell, blends the familiar (“Young Once,” “That Ain’t Beautiful”) with enjoyable new additions (“Breaking Up was Easy in the ‘90s”). Hunt is at his most exciting when he fuses the past and the present (“Let It Down” truly shines bright) into ambitious creations that hint at even greater promise ─ but his second offering is largely a mixed bag.