By and large, Southside’s familiarly adolescent takes on heartbreak and cool urban tinge belie Sam Hunt’s 35 years of age, but it takes him fewer seconds to prove he’s a better singer than you thought he was: opener ‘2016’ is the most vulnerable we’ve ever heard Hunt allow himself to be, with serene acoustic plucking, pedal steel and gentle brushing on the cymbals. Not a snap track, spoken word, or rigid melody in sight, Hunt trills through a perfect exercise in songwriting, the best his voice has ever sounded on record. The extended metaphor of turning back time results in an inspired lyric, among the best the writers have to their names (Hunt, Zach Crowell, Josh Thompson). A whole album of this? I’m sold.
Alas, no cigar. From here on, Hunt rarely distances himself from his 2014 debut, the ubiquitous, lightning-in-a-bottle Montevallo. It’s hard to blame him for not wanting to pivot too many degrees from that flawed yet impressive debut. There certainly are instances like ‘Sinning With You’ and the spare piano ending of ‘Drinkin’ Too Much’ – that reprise the candour of ‘2016’, and position the album as a vehicle for a far more interesting artistic trajectory than we could previously have hypothesised. Then there are also winning moments of melancholy dressed up as sunny as anything he’s put out to date which place enough substance behind the congenial to aid the album’s route from start to finish (‘Hard To Forget’, ‘Let It Down’).
Plenty here sounds like overspill of his first album, sprinkled with just enough banjo and slide in response to the revivalist success of Jon Pardi and Midland. Perhaps he has just not made much musical progress. That lightning might strike twice, but something tells me it won’t strike a third time. How long has this album sat finished, anyway? It’s named after a lyric from the 2017 megahit ‘Body Like A Backroad’, which finally finds an album to call home here. One could argue this feels like a stopgap between Montevallo and Hunt becoming the introspective songwriter buried beneath.
Given what we know about Hunt’s personal life, particularly his marriage to the girl many of these songs are about, the stories feel a little outdated in the present tense. I love his exploration of it, but I wish he would fully dedicate himself to that cause, starting with a proper closing verse to the song ‘That Ain’t Beautiful’, a good song the chapters of which don’t go far enough.
Given the way Montevallo caught on, it seemed Sam Hunt was top of the pack of these urban-contemporary country boys, but he risks his crown when the worst of these songs sound like Montevallo B-Sides. The best sound like the future, or at least, Hunt’s, but for some fans, his career sabbatical may as well have continued. Southside has his highest highs, and some mild lows.