Whether you think of Spotify as an ocean of possibility or a profit-driven data swamp, Ek’s business model has changed how many of us live with music — so much so that Nashville’s biggest country singers, the pop stars slowest to adapt to the relentless changes of the digital era, are finally getting with the grift.
It felt most apparent last week with the release of Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album,” a swollen, 30-song recording from country music’s 27-year-old sensation. As statement albums go, “Dangerous” feels long and samey, but it also sounds pretty good, which is exactly what Spotify likes. Ek’s system pays artists by the stream, so the system-gamers like to release their songs in giant heaps, but without many surprises tucked inside. The strategy is to lull you into a happy torpor so you don’t log off. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
In prioritizing passive engagement over active listening, Spotify is training us to prefer a lot of pretty good to a little bit of great — but Wallen has already shown his greatness in bright flickers. His 2018 debut, “If I Know Me,” had two exquisite hit singles, the lonesome “Whiskey Glasses” and the lonesomer “Chasin’ You.” If they missed your ears, maybe you caught Wallen’s name a few months ago when video footage of the singer kissing various randos in a Tuscaloosa college bar went viral. His actions were stupid and contagious enough for “Saturday Night Live” to rescind a performance invitation in October, but when the show invited Wallen back a mere two months later, he sang two songs from “Dangerous,” then tried to sweep the ordeal under the rug in a painfully unfunny skit about the whole mess.
“Dangerous” is a cheap title for a double album by a pandemic smoocher, and it doesn’t fit the music, either. Wallen isn’t interested in questioning Nashville’s norms so much as buffing them into a dazzling faultlessness. His songs seem designed to reconcile years of stylistic arm-wrestling on Music Row, tempering the zesty testosterone of, say, Florida Georgia Line with the temperate introspection of, say, Chris Stapleton. Wallen sticks to that formula for 97 minutes. The only danger he finds is the edge of our boredom.
So if you’re hoping to get a sense of how he experiences time, you’ll need to ignore that too-big picture and try listening line by line. Wallen loves to sing a slow song fast, pushing the tempo in ways that allow him to perform little gymnastics routines inside his mouth. On “Somebody’s Problem,” he sings about “thekindagirl” whose magnetism defies his better judgment, as if fast-forwarding through his indiscretion. On “Whiskey’d My Way,” his syllables tumble with such terrific bounce, it’s easy to forget he’s singing a sad-guy waltz. Wallen’s voice is a brawny, raspy, twangy thing, but it’s the speed of his phrasing that gives his music its humanity, its sense of desire, and its sense of regret. Again, it’s the slow-song-fast trick. Whether he’s rushing into a fling or trying to escape a heartbreak, time never seems to be moving fast enough.
Or maybe Wallen isn’t in any kind of hurry at all. Last week, when the radio personality Bobby Bones asked Wallen why he decided to go long with “Dangerous,” Wallen replied, “I feel like people really want music right now, more than they have in a long time, because they have more time to listen to it.” Is that what music is for? Filling time? Sound as packing peanuts?
If you value your listening time more than that — and you should, listening is life, all musicians should know and honor this — start with Wallen’s rendition of “Cover Me Up,” Jason Isbell’s signature ballad about addiction, redemption, love and commitment. Wallen’s version has been kicking around for a couple years now, but it finally has a permanent home on “Dangerous,” and it’s placement near the middle of the tracklist feels apt. Instead of making his mouth do somersaults, Wallen centers himself in the music, focusing on his lungs, his throat. Melodized breath slowly moves up and out, allowing pain to linger even as it’s being released. It’s a heavy, precious song, and Wallen handles it as delicately as life itself. When music makes time feel this valuable, you can be sure nobody’s wasting yours.