Be As You Are: Songs From An Old Blue Chair
his was supposed to be a low-key do-nothing album of general leisure that Kenny Chesney did for a lark because he’s been touring for years, and he’s as tired as any man can be. So he goes down to the Caribbean with a guitar, records a few tracks, sends them up north, and the record labels says "why not?" and presses a few copies. It does well and everyone becomes happy.
At least that’s the story—and it would be true, if it wasn't for the videos, television advertisements, his appearances on country music television, and a new website with exclusive video commentaries on each of the songs. Then again, country adapts personae as readily as any other genre, and Chesney's success has increased exponentially. So why not sell the good ol' boy image with the melancholy nostalgia, cracker-joking, frat-boy erotica, and beach bum recreation that are already found in spades on his other CDs?
The first (and the last) song makes it plain from the get-go. “Old Blue Chair” is the story of a real chair somewhere on a real beach, made of real wicker. He mentions this fact several times—the chair of the song is a metonymy of Chesney's larger concerns, he has "read a lot of books, wrote a few songs," "looked at his life and where he’s gone," and all of this thinking and touring, all of this musicianship has destroyed his joy of life. The only thing that restores it is a beach chair where he fishes, tans, watches boats, recovers from a lover, and prays. It even kept him safe after he passed out drunk one night. All of his life is reduced to this chair and this beach. It's a lovely song, but it's essentially another prayer of nostalgia—an emotion that all but dominates Chesney's work.
What continues from the chair are lullabies of self-realization and happiness soaked with booze and joy. “Be As You Are,” keeps all of the clichés of middle American tropical vacations (Pina Colodas, hammocks) and would be borderline offensive if it wasn't for the music, with the glistening steel drums, understated harmonicas, fretless bass, and a heartbreaking coda of lalalas—the last few seconds, where Chesney goes all onomatopoeic makes me think that he should fire his writers and just sing syllables.
This is confirmed by the silly “Guitars and Tiki Bars.” The same island clichés (mangoes and Marley) are delivered in a similar stoner's drawl, but there is a laconic calypso sway, suggesting that he has actually spent time on the islands. If you can avoid thinking about what is being said, you may want to give up working, and move down south (yes: this South is imaginary and yes: there is something to be said about the racist implications of the lazy native in the tropical heat especially when it is being exported by a millionaire white entertainer—but hearing this makes you want to believe in the legend without any colonial baggage.)
There is also the question of money—and by the fourth track the usual country audience who cannot afford these vacations between work and child raising, would begin to resent all this leisure—which is why “Island Boy” seeks to explain how anyone can have this life. From the sheer practicalities of "he saved his money and sold his car" to the seductive "he’s an island boy / Living a life where his stress is the enemy" to becoming a local, wherein he hangs out with his dope smoking friends, and it ends with a pretty girl and a nice house—and happiness.
There are all sorts of musical and lyrical details like this throughout the album, but it doesn’t make all of the songs great—there are a number of genuine clunkers and some smaller disappointments. All of the ambiguity and sexual complexity of his last single seems drained out of “Boston,” but it does have the exact same narrative and most of the same musical cues, while “Something Sexy About The Rain” is filler for Faith Hill or something Shania would make a suggestive video of; the instrumentation dull and lifeless, not quiet and subdued.
And then there’s the country tropic version of Warrant’s "Cherry Pie." This one must have been done intoxicated. That’s because there’s no real reason why Chesney would release a song that mentions coconuts, shaking that thing, a "not too tart and not too sweet" key lime pie that his baby "loves to watch him eat," and ends with an threesome between Kenny, Ginger and Mary-Anne. It’s probably camp, but it’s crucially missing humor or the dirtiness that Chesney, at his best, is most capable (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”).
Thankfully, a lovely and content ballad called “Soul of the Sail” eventually saves the day, using the best of Chesney's haunting and well-constructed baritone. It deserves a place in the great sea songs of the past, not in the cheap and easy Jimmy Buffetisms, but something older and more emotionally resonant. It’s followed, and the album closed, by the aforementioned second version of “Old Blue Chairs,” which was field-recorded on a four track at the beach, and sounds almost refreshingly raggedly lo-fi.
If he cut the middle out and made it an EP, Kenny Chesney’s Be As You Are would be a classic. There are undoubtedly songs here that will be on my singles list at the end of the year—I’ve listened to the best tracks a dozen times and they have burrowed into my cerebral cortex. That’s why it’s such a disappointment then, that the filler has to take such a central part of the album.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-02-25