By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).
The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.
Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:
Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired
Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.
If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:
Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man
This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).
Almost as good is the downbeat ballad ‘I Can’t Outrun You’, written by Kyle Jacobs, Joe Leathers and Ben Glover. The protagonist is trapped in his feelings for the woman who has left him and unable to move on. One of Trace’s finest ever vocals is matched by a haunting arrangement.
There is a single reminder of the worst of Trace, with the loud and moderately obnoxious ‘Sweet’ which opens the album but is soon forgotten. ‘Hillbilly Rich’ is also too loud, but quite entertaining.
‘Hauling One Thing’ is trucking song as the protagonist hastens home to his woman with a bit of a double-entendre. It’s a little cluttered sounding at times, but works both as a song in its own right and as a tribute to the trucking sub-genre of the 70s, with a quote from Jerry Reed’s ‘East Bound And Down’ at the end.
The up-tempo take on dealing with the end of a relationship, ‘Better Than I Thought It’d Be’ is well written (by Jay Knowles and Kendal Marvel) and effectively sung, but over-produced. ‘Let’s Do That Again’, written by Chris Dubois, Chris Stapleton and Jim Beavers, is a sultry, bluesy appeal to rekindle a jaded relationship which offers something a little different
The iTunes version includes a bonus track, namely Trace’s version of Jamey Johnson’s modern classic ‘In Color’. This is very good, if not quite as affecting as the original.
Disappointingly, this album was one of Trace’s less successful releases commercially, perhaps because it lacked any major hit singles, but it was a significant return to form artistically. It certainly recharged my flagging interest in Trace’s music.