Hunter Hayes’ Strengths Shine Throughout Sophomore LP ‘Storyline’
Storyline is an enjoyable listen that highlights Hayes’ strengths more often than not
With all the talk of “blurred lines” these days, young country singer/songwriter Hunter Hayes very much exemplifies that sentiment throughout his albums. His latest album, Storyline, is no different. Hayes artistically doesn’t sound like your traditional country artist. Vocally, his tone is too pure, smooth, and ‘boyish’ in sound (not negatively of course). Pop sensibility is written throughout his artistic script, much like any number of youthful country artists (Taylor Swift), hence his fan base is one that doesn’t mind if their country follows the ‘prescribed’ script line by line. Storyline, Hayes’ second album of note, overall is well done; it’s not without flaws and nitpicks, but Hayes offers compelling musicianship.
“Wild Card” opens energetically with aggressive guitars, which give the production a countrified rock sound. This assertiveness is superb because it gives the polished singer some ‘oomph’ to build off of. Perhaps Hayes will never be defined as that tough, feisty country singer, but “Wild Card” shows a nice compromise between ‘script’ and the new country-pop movement. Oh and the songwriting – A-Okay! “Baby you’re my wild card / my perfect little twist of fate,” Hayes sings enthusiastically on the refrain, “you’re my first spark, shot in the dark / favorite part of everything.”
Title track “Storyline” keeps the momentum flowing and the tempo remains quick. The use of mandolin gives this cut a nice color – a contrasting sound. Again, Hayes shows his vocal power, even if there is still that notion Hayes is more based in pop. Like “Wild Card”, songwriting is a pro, if for no other lyrics then “…Make this story all our own / and blow Shakespeare’s mind / it’s ours to write / it’s our love, and it’s our life…” during the chorus. Hayes goes two-for-two early on.
“Still Fallin’” predictably slows the tempo down, but predictability aside, this is the right move in regards to overall pacing. Hayes flaunts his radiant vocal tone, which perhaps isn’t quite ‘memorable’ yet, but shows the potential to be in the future. The cut appeals to the younger audience, likely teens and younger, given its schmaltzy writing.
“Tattoo” also appeals to a similar base, as Hayes lyrical and personality-wise seems to show resistance to getting real ink: “Your name, your name / sounds real good next to mine…your name, your name, your name / would be a good tattoo.” Many older country male artists, possessing an edgier country sound, literally sport tattoos without figuratively mentioning them like Hayes. There’s nothing wrong with it in the least – it paints Hayes as the good ole southern Christian boy next door. Maybe more mature audiences take issue and then again, maybe not.
“Invisible” is much more agreeable from any number of bases – the messaging of the songwriting is incredibly meaningful. “Trust the one / who’s been where you are wishing it was all it was,” sings Hayes on the chorus, “was sticks and stones / those words cut deep but they don’t mean you’re all alone / and you’re not invisible…” Though this cut could be meant to uplift younger ones, the message of never letting bullies’ actions or insensitive words destroy you carries over beyond turbulent adolescent years – bullies are everywhere at any age, unfortunately. “Invisible” shows incredible maturity and poise, seemingly making the ‘youthful’ Hayes much older than tracks like the puppy-dog love of “Still Fallin” or “Tattoo” would suggest.
An “…Interlude” proceeds, featuring lush strings and typical country-oriented strings (guitar and mandolin). Perhaps “Interlude” isn’t necessary or vital to the album’s success, but it is a beautiful break following the heavy, inspiration “Invisible”.
“You Think You Know Somebody” is ambitious in the sense that Hayes tries to evoke a bit of a rock persona. While the ad-libs show the range of his pipes and good intentions, it doesn’t quite feel like Hayes was driving in ‘his lane’, if you catch the drift. The cut comes off a bit much, over-reaching from my perspective. The guitar solo, however, is great.
“Flashlight”, like “You Think You Know Somebody” isn’t bad, but still not on the same level as “Wild Card”, “Storyline”, or “Invisible”. The bridge over-reaches much like “You Think You Know Somebody”, and the song runs too long approaching the five-minute mark. Even with its shortcomings, there are some pros. Panned guitars within the production – acoustic to the left, electric to the right – sound excellent to the ears, as does the use of a warm piano. Hayes, as always sounds solid, getting a lift from backing vocals.
“When Did You Stop Loving Me” gives Storyline some much needed punch. The opening accordion is a contrast to the ear, and while Hayes’ voice still possesses stylistic neutrality about it, there is a subtle hint of country there. There is an undeniable innocence here, but not an innocence that feels childish like “Tattoo” did (Side note: I’ve seen many teens with ink). Instead, the simplicity of this number is relatable to all ages as this topic/question happens at any number of stages in life.
He expands on the second interlude of the album, “…Like I was saying (jam)”. If nothing more, “…Like I was saying (jam)” showcases musical intensity. “Secret Love” follows with an addictive groove, and a big country-pop refrain: “Secret love, all the things we do / for secret love, baby me and you…” Nope, it’s no reinvention, but if nothing else, the verse vocals contain feistiness and the songwriting is simplistic but delivers the point.
On “Nothing Like Starting Over” Hayes definitely embraces the pop world, with his vocal runs. The word “over” receives its fair share of melisma with its various iterations. While “Nothing Like Starting Over” actually has a traditional country feel, it’s an average track compared to better ones on this album. Furthermore, while the rhythmic verse vocals are appreciated, the execution seems to lack a comfortable flow, sounding a bit clumsy.
Penultimate joint “If It’s Just Me” is lighter in approach. Unfortunately, at this juncture, Storyline feels long. “Love Too Much” closes slowly, set in six-eight, with a more reflective tone. The closing trio – examined as one – feel a bit less thrilling compared to the exhilarating opening.
Ultimately, how does Storyline stack up? Well, glad you asked! It’s a solid album that plays well to the base it’s aimed at – youthful country fans. There are enough tracks that will please older, more mature country fans to an extent, but face it – this is not a Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan album.
Hayes’ appeal contrasts other country artists. At 22, he’s in a good position in his career where he doesn’t have to worry about pleasing older, more countrified fans. However, as he gets older and seeks to spread his wings, Hayes’ base will grow older too and his music will have to reflect his own continual maturity. But in the present, Storyline is an enjoyable listen that highlights Hayes’ strengths more often than not.
Gems: “Wild Card,” “Storyline,” “Invisible” & “Why Did You Stop Loving Me”