Album Review: Trace Adkins – X (Ten)

Jim Malec | December 9th, 2008

Trace Adkins - XIf you’re not into Roman numerals (though, let’s face it, who isn’t?), I should explain that the name of Trace Adkins’ latest album represents its chronological place within the singer’s discography. Of course, X is only technically accurate if we’re including Adkins’ two greatest hits packages in our calculations (which we usually don’t when counting an artist’s albums). Without those, this would only be Adkins’ eighth album. I guess VIII just doesn’t have the same zing.

That’s not to say, however, that X isn’t a fitting title. This collection plots a point well off the slope set by Adkins’ previous work, and X seems appropriate considering that the album is stronger, that it takes more risks, and that it’s more emotionally affecting than any of Adkins’ first seven studio releases.

It’s because Adkins is one of the genre’s most consistent artists, however, that X is somehow unsettling. We expect our favorite behemoth baritone to put forth decent work that follows a very specific pattern—Adkins is about mainstream radio ditties with the occasional power ballad tossed into the mix. His music is pleasant, sometimes great to dance to, often irreverent, but rarely truly gripping. Even the first single from this project, “Muddy Water” (which is the last track on the album) aptly does what it sets out to do without being really memorable or particularly moving.

But there have been a few rare cases where the mild mannered Adkins has Hulked up and released something stronger than anyone expected. He catches us off guard in those moments of excellence, moments which notably include his seriously underappreciated “Arlington,” a song that was outperformed on the charts by classics like “Hot Mama” and “Chrome.”

X certainly has its share of ditties; Opener “Sweet” sounds like the creative offspring of a John Rich protégé and someone who really, really likes making lists of things, and the forgettable mid-tempo “Let’s Do That Again” is the most boring kind of groovy.

Likewise, “Marry for Money” can be classified as nothing other than ditty–although there’s something telling about its inclusion on the project. After all, major Nashville labels in today’s environment generally avoid releasing songs that are intentionally silly. When was the last time you heard something from a hitmaking mainstream artist that was purposely ridiculous? “Marry for Money” is silly to the point that it’s ridiculous, but in some bizarre way, it works. And it demonstrates that here Adkins is willing to take some chances, to tweak the rules of engagement just enough to make this album something that is unexpected and engaging.

And in doing so he reaches a level of excellence that he has achieved only spottily in the past.

There’s an almost unheard of diversity of material on X, from the Funkabilly groove of “Better Than I Thought It’d Be” (on which, in the song’s intro, Adkins’ seemingly gives a nod to Funkabilly matriarch Joanna Cotten), to the heavy truckin’ “Haulin’ One Thing,” to the up-tempo, quasi-Honky Tonk/contemporary country hybrid “Hillbilly Rich.”

All of those songs carve out a unique musical space, and each is fun in its own way. Of course, each is also more or less unfocused clutter—I have no idea, for instance, why there’s a lyrically cliché trucking song on this album—but the clutter is interesting enough to keep our attention while Adkins gets to the good stuff. The really good stuff.

Adkins’ best work is tied together by themes of redemption and reflection. When he sings about maturing, about overcoming the mistakes of his past and being “happy to be here,” he does so with a gravitas that makes us believe these aren’t just stories fabricated for the sake of the song, but that he’s lived every word.

And whereas Adkins’ previous albums have touched on these issues in passing, X puts them front and center. In fact, a majority of the album is comprised of truly outstanding material, which includes the sincere “All I Ask For Anymore,” and the fantastic Larry Cordle (of “Murder on Music Row” fame) co-written stone country ballad “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink.”

X’s most brightly shining moment, however, comes on the back-to-back pairing of “’Till The Last Shot’s Fired” and “I Can’t Outrun You,” two songs which producer Frank Rogers beautifully plays off each other, each discussing a certain kind of ghost—the former told from the voice of fallen soldiers who ask us to pray for peace, the later the voice of a lover that relentlessly haunts the singer’s heart.

Rogers is the best mainstream producer in the game right now, and he proves why here—both songs are perfectly sparse, “I Can’t Outrun You” almost unprecedentedly so.

Rogers does make one giant misstep, however—“’Till The Last Shot’s Fired” closes with an incredibly bizarre choral track that is supposed to be a manifestation of the voices of the fallen soldiers, but the arrangement makes the soldiers sound like chanting monks who are very concerned with proper enunciation. (Who knew ghosts had such strong diction?)

Aside from that, there is the fact that Adkins is already singing the song from from the perspective, and in the voice, of those soldiers. When the creepy choir jumps in and attempts to elevate the drama, it just comes off sounding, well, creepy. It also sounds forced, as if it’s trying to hammer home a point that it thinks we might not otherwise get. To that end, it undoes much of the sincerity that Adkins brings to his exquisite performance.

Still, it’s a truly affecting song, and the cornerstone of what is by far the best album of Adkins’ career. With X, Adkins soars above our expectations and shatters our notions of what he’s capable of. X is a wonderful country record.

4 Stars

Recommended Tracks: “‘Till The Last Shot’s Fired“, “I Can’t Outrun You“, “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink.

5 Pings

  1. [...] Trace Adkins - X (Ten) Whereas Adkins’ previous albums have touched on redemption and reflection in passing, X puts those issues front and center. In fact, a majority of the album is comprised of truly outstanding material, which includes the sincere “All I Ask For Anymore,” and the fantastic Larry Cordle (of “Murder on Music Row” fame) co-written stone country ballad “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink.” [...] With X, Adkins soars above our expectations and shatters our notions of what he’s capable of. X is a wonderful country record. — Jim Malec [...]
  2. [...] the review of Trace Adkin’s X by Jim [...]
  3. [...] "Marry for Money" Reviews The image of all 6′6″ of Adkins as a pathetic little gold digger is funny enough. But then you throw his baritone vocals onto the hook about “I don’t really care if she loves me/She can even be ugly/I’m gonna marry for money,” and you’ve got yourself a novelty song that’s as memorable as it is laughable. - CMT Blog I would stray from declaring this one of Trace’s very best, but after a few more powerful songs the past year it’s actually entertaining to hear Trace return to a more entertaining, hillbilly tone. - Country Universe “Marry for Money” is silly to the point that it’s ridiculous, but in some bizarre way, it works. And it demonstrates that here Adkins is willing to take some chances, to tweak the rules of engagement just enough to make this album something that is unexpected and engaging. - The 9513 [...]
  4. [...] a single released to radio, it does nothing to enhance Adkins as an artist. As Jim Malec notes in his review of X, “Marry for Money” serves as interesting filler within a stylistically diverse album. However, [...]
  5. [...] explore a few aspects of the song.  Most of the debate I’ve seen so far (over at the 9513 - www.the9513.com/album-review-trace-adkins-x-ten/) has centered on the appropriateness of the West Point Cadet Glee Club’s choral singing at [...]
  1. Chris N.
    December 9, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I like to think that if there is an afterlife, everyone there has perfect diction.

  2. SW
    December 9, 2008 at 10:05 am

    “he does so with a gravitas that makes us believe these aren’t just stories fabricated for the sake of the song, but that he’s lived every word.”

    I’m not typically the ‘quote and disagree’ type, but this almost made me gasp. If Adkins wants to convince people he’s lived every word, maybe he should write one or two of those words. I reluctantly picked this album up and found it all to similar with what I’ve come to expect from Trace Adkins.

  3. Jim Malec
    December 9, 2008 at 10:11 am

    To discount the non-songwriter from country music is to discount some of the genre’s greatest singers.

  4. SW
    December 9, 2008 at 10:48 am

    While I agree, I’m of the opinion that a singer is far more believable when some of his/her work is self created and injected into a focused album. Trace Adkins, although he carries a very masculine voice, does not convey to me the notion that he’s both lived “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” and “Arlington.” George Strait, although he’s never written a song for himself still continually reaffirms his status as a cowboy singer. Perhaps it’s that Trace Adkins’ music so ‘all over the map,’ that it’s difficult (for me) to glean anything particularly insightful about who he is or what he’s lived.

  5. Matt B.
    December 9, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    SW,

    A great singer need not be a songwriter to interpret a great song. Hell, even if Adkins’ name WAS on some of these songs, how would that change your opinion. A MAJORITY of the artists who ‘co-write’ nowadays do hardly anything except maybe give the writers a word or two while being written. So to chalk-up Adkins’ music as ‘difficult to glean anything particularly insightful’ because he doesn’t write is just plain silly.

  6. Drew
    December 9, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    I agreee that the ending of “Til The Last Shot’s Fired” is out of place. Thankfully I was able to edit it out in GoldWave without any trouble.

  7. Jason
    December 9, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    HOLY CRAP!!!!!!!!!!!!! I actually found a review that agrees with my blog on the 9513 (well I had a half star more, big deal). This really brings my appreciation for this blog back after the horrible review of Paisley’s “Play” album.

  8. TAYERS
    December 9, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    I’ll admit that the ending of that song does sound strange, but it is worth noting that the choir singing is the cadet choir at West Point. Trace’s people had to get permission from the Pentagon to include those guys on the record. If you go to all that trouble for a project like that, and it doesn’t sound quite like you thought it would, it’s understandable to leave it on there anyway to avoid snubbing the entire U.S. military.

  9. Davey
    December 9, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    That is a little weird isn’t it? I wish I had goldwave (and then the technological skills to work it.)
    I think people are forgetting that turning a song into music is an art in and of itself, not just the writing of it. I think a lot of songs could have more meaning to them if someone who could put them across better had cut them.
    You are right on SW about the “A MAJORITY of the artists who ‘co-write’ nowadays do hardly anything except maybe give the writers a word or two while being written” knowing the other writers is a big clue who really wrote the song.

  10. Davey
    December 9, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    oh, that fact makes a big difference. thanks Tayers. forget the goldwave.

  11. Pierce
    December 9, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I, too, thought the choral part of “Till The Last Shot’s Fired” could have been done better… but does it make any difference to you that it’s the West Point Cadet Choir, and Adkins had to get special permission to record with them? I really think that’s a cool move and a fitting tribute, so that sorta makes me see it in a different light.

    If it were just some random choir, I would have suggested they just leave that part out altogether.

  12. Jim Malec
    December 9, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I don’t care if it’s Jesus’ own personal choir of angels. The song is a fitting enough tribute without it. In fact, the fact that it’s the cadet choir makes me feel even more strongly that it’s an artistic misstep–knowing that, once again, we’re looking at something done for the sake of symbolism rather than art.

  13. Lee S.
    December 9, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    “After all, major Nashville labels in today’s environment generally avoid releasing songs that are intentionally silly. When was the last time you heard something from a hitmaking mainstream artist that was purposely ridiculous?”

    I think reading this would “Ticks” Brad Paisley off, and he’d rant about it “Online.”

    Other than that, great review!

  14. Jim Malec
    December 9, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    “Ticks” and “Online” but have an underlying and/or redeeming cleverness. “Marry For Money” is, on the other hand, completely pointless.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  15. Matt B.
    December 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Trace seems to be one of a few artists who record ‘completely pointless’ and ‘silly’ songs.

  16. Chris D.
    December 9, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Jim, if it was a choir of real angels they would know that the ending hurts the song and would be able to make it better.

    I may have to pick up this album, we’ll see. I’ve never liked his radio stuff, so I stay wary of his albums.

  17. Steve Harvey
    December 9, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I quite like this record, and I think in terms of song selection it’s on par with ‘Dreaming Out Loud’, although the production is infinitely superior due to Frank Rodgers being a solid gold genius.

  18. Occasional Hope
    January 4, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I don’t think this is Trace’s finest release overall – I think his 1999 More edges it a little, but it is his best since then, imho. There’s only one song I actively dislike (Sweet – although I have slight reservations about the double entendre in Hauling One Thing) and two genuinely great songs in Til The Last Shot’s Fired (incidentally I’m intrigued by the reference to Mary in the chorus – is one or both of the writers Catholic, I wonder?) and Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink. I agree that the choir feels a little out of place.
    My main criticism is the sequencing. In general I feel the second half is substantially stronger than the first, and it would actually work better for me sequenced in the exact opposite order (starting with Muddy Water). The exceptiobn here is that I think Til The Last Shot’s Fired would work best at the end of the album, leaving one time to consider its message after the music has ended.

  19. Dani
    April 17, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Absolutely hate the mindless bantet of a song “Marry For Money”. Trace is pretty degrading toward woman, which is unacceptable, however for some people it makes good music.

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