Why are we surprised that Alex Williams got to release this album on Big Machine? Because it’s traditional country? Because he’s virtually unknown? Because Scott Borchetta’s label is also home to Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett?
Well, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Thrilled, maybe, but not surprised. Scott Borchetta may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He signed Taylor Swift, an online sensation, with the hope that he could market to teenage girls in country, and you can’t argue with the results even if your opinion of Swift isn’t great. He signed FGL when it became clear bro country would take off. He molded Thomas Rhett to take advantage of the R&B craze taking over the country airwaves. When it became apparent that people were having second thoughts and misgivings about bro country, he signed Maddie & Tae and helped them get a #1 protest song. He signed Midland to take advantage of the cry for more traditional acts, and now he’s done arguably the most predictable, Scott Borchetta-like thing he could do in response to the growth of Americana: sign someone completely unknown with an image to match. He’s not going to go so far as to approach someone like say, Cody Jinks, though–for one, Jinks would never agree, and secondly, that would make too much sense. NO, he’s gone with the completely unknown, out of left field Alex Williams, and then when people won’t listen to Alex because they’re trying to make some sort of hipster statement and boycott the mainstream, it’s going to look like bro country, R&B, and whatever Sam Hunt is doing are truly still the best and most popular options.
So don’t buy into that plan and avoid Alex Williams just because he’s on Big Machine. Give the music a fair shake because if we all turn our backs on principle, he and others like him won’t be given a chance to succeed, and they’ll keep churning out more Thomas Rhetts.
Does that mean this Alex Williams debut is a groundbreaking piece of pure country excellence? No, not by a long stretch, but it’s got a lot of potential, and let’s remember, it’s a debut record. So with all that said, I’d like to talk about Alex Williams and his music now as opposed to the label on the back of this album.
I mentioned potential, and this record is brimming with it. Alex Williams definitely has a great, throwback country sound and style that also adds more contemporary elements. He’s got a great voice to match, and you’ll truly find country all over this record. He sounds sincere, and it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be anything other than himself.
Unfortunately, Better Than Myself is sort of an ironic title because unlike the assertion on the title track that his songs are better than himself, the songs are not necessarily as good as Alex here. Taken on their own, they’re actually all quite good or at least decent, but they start to run together in a similar fashion to Sara Evans’ latest album because the material is too similar. There’s a lot of drinking and getting stoned on this album, and sometimes it’s like he’s just writing about drinking and such for the sake of it. In other words, it feels more like an interpretation of style, or in this case subject matter, rather than honest reflection by Williams himself. It’s difficult to say because he truly does always sound sincere and engaged, but I think it’s a fault of the fact that this is his debut record, and he’s playing it a little safe. As I say, the songs are mostly fine on their own, but Alex Williams needs to balance them with a little more depth.
But we all used to be more forgiving of artists’ debut efforts, and Alex Williams shouldn’t be an exception. It’s hard not to hear a song like “Few short Miles,” a personal track about Bobby, a mentor of Williams who died of cancer, and not want to root for this guy. This is easily the strongest track here, and you can see that if he’s given a chance, Alex could develop into a really bright spot in the mainstream. And a lot of the drinking songs are fine on their own, the record just needs some variety and perhaps a little more personality. You hear cool lyrics sprinkled throughout the record, like in “Strange Days” and “Old Tattoo.” “Last Cross” is also a fine song, closing the album with some reflection about the hard living mentioned here as he prepares to meet a lover at “the last cross left to bear.”
Ultimately, this record’s not going to change your life or anything, and it’s definitely got some tired and even cliché themes, but it’s also quite a promising debut from Alex Williams. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that. The material is too similar, and there’s not quite enough Alex pouring out of it, but the lighthearted attitude with which this album is delivered is actually really refreshing to me. It may also help that it’s a fun, uncomplicated album that I listened to in the midst of all the turmoil going on in our world right now. I wasn’t really looking for depth when i heard this, so I probably heard it at the right time, and that may admittedly account for why I seem to be enjoying this a little more than some others talking about this album.
I don’t know if we’d all be talking about it if it hadn’t come from Big Machine, though, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for the obvious reason that it’s pretty incredible to see an album like this get released on a major label, even premiered on NPR and such, but it’s bad because too many people are prejudging it. It’s not going to blow you away, but this is a guy we should all be able to get behind. There’s a lot of room for development, but these days, an artist doesn’t always get that time to develop, and I fear that this will be largely ignored due to people’s refusal to listen to it. Recognize this for what it is, a positive step for the mainstream.
I hope Alex Williams gets to record more albums, and that next time, I won’t be giving him such a mixed review. I hope he can develop his sound and become one of the shining lights in mainstream country, and I’m sorry he doesn’t quite do that with this record. But it’s his debut, and we all have to start somewhere. The flaws are right up front on this album, but the potential is too, and it’s up to us to make sure he gets enough time to truly live up to that potential. Not the album that’s going to “save” country music, but it’s a decent, fun record. Give it a chance.