Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs for the Saints’ Delivers on Good Intentions
It's more important to recognize what Kenny Chesney's Songs for the Saints album is than to pull apart the 11 songs and compare them to his canon, and songs written and recorded by his contemporaries. In a decade, his first album on Warner Music Nashville will be remembered as an inspired side project that delivers on good intentions.
The introspective Be As You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair) is the best comparison from Chesney's days on Sony, but going down that road misses the point of an album created to help his friends in the Virgin Islands heal after two massive hurricanes (Category 5 storms Irma and Maria) struck in 2017. Beyond donating the proceeds to his Love for Love City fund, Chesney tells the island's story and works to restore hope.
Songs for the Saints begins with the radio-ready "Songs for the Saints," but quickly backs down to create a less obvious, quieter soundscape held down by mandolin and steel drums at the peaks and little more than an acoustic guitar at the valleys. There are swells (heavy guitars carry the chorus of his cover of Lord Huron's "Ends of the Earth"), but if you're looking for "All the Pretty Girls" redux, you'd best move along.
Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of his own 1970s song "Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season," and Ziggy Marley takes a verse on the country-reggae combo "Love for Love City," the most true-to-detail missive from the longtime Virgin Islands resident's point of view.
"No I wasn't there on the island / The night that the drums went silent / But as much as I've lived my life on her shore / I'll be a part of the encore," Chesney sings, cementing a pledge that really began in the immediate aftermath as he sheltered the suddenly homeless, rescued animals and helped reunite families. This song and the title track were written in the moment, as photos and details of the devastation started to become public.
Songs like "Pirate Ship" and "Gulf Moon" serve to capture the spirit of island life, but they're less specific. Lyrically this is a demanding album. Nothing will effortlessly lift you up like the wind, setting you down with a warm smile three minutes and 10 seconds later. You have to do your part to earn the reward. The Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne co-written "Every Heart" is bittersweet poetry. "We're All Here" recalls the guitar tones of "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" while joyfully exploring why this land of vagabonds exists. "Island Rain" serves to remind one that life's storms may hurt, but they also cleanse.
"Better Boat" (a collaboration with Mindy Smith) closes with a tear and a smile, summarizing the whole experience. Hopeless self-pity becomes something that looks like a sunrise by the second chorus, before turning to guarded optimism as he ends. Travis Meadows — the well-traveled and beaten king of this emotional turnabout — co-wrote it and included it on his own First Cigarette album from 2017.
In June NPR published a piece that revisited the Virgin Islands. Chesney's album also serves as a reminder that the recovery will take years, not months. One senses that's the point. For a few days, weeks, months or as long as these songs gather radio airplay, his island home will be top of mind.
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