Kenny Chesney can’t possibly have imagined the world in which we’d be listening to “Here and Now.” The country superstar’s 19th studio album was supposed to arrive two weeks into a stadium-and-amphitheater “Chillaxification Tour 2020” that would have kept parking lot parties going well into college football season.
With its call-and-response chorus, opening track “We Do” clearly was designed for Chesney fans — a concertgoing community rivaled perhaps only by Parrotheads and Deadheads — to shout 70,000 strong during stops along the now postponed tour. Instead, No Shoes Nation finds itself scattered to the four corners of the country with little reason to put on pants, much less shoes, unless they’re going out to check the mail.
But here’s the thing: When you develop a functional, fully realized view of the world, you find you build it strong enough to weather sudden, radical shifts of circumstance. Chesney’s been perfecting his work-hard-relax-harder ethos for a good 27 years now; as a result, “Here and Now” is a strangely satisfying album for this particular moment in time.
With a guitar intro that recalls the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove,” the bracing title track marries Chesney’s classic-rock-infused country with his in-the-moment philosophy: “Ain’t no better place, ain’t no better time than here and now,” he sings. Instead of ringing hollow, it might be the perfect motivational song for quarantine days — a high-energy number that doesn’t necessarily try to get you to do anything, except maybe to make the most of doing nothing.
Now 52, Chesney has developed a beautiful sense of peace and contentment that permeates “Here and Now,” even when he’s singing about characters who haven’t managed to do the same. “You Don’t Get To,” for instance, represents a step of growth from his 2011 hit “You and Tequila.” “Maybe I’m not the same me, but you’re the same you,” he sings with firm intensity to a love who once could have run like poison in his blood, showing a confidence to distance himself he might not always have had. “Someone to Fix” finds a mess of a man marveling at the forces that created a wholly unexpected relationship: “How’d you get all tangled up in the careless wreck I am?” he wonders. The “Marilyn in blue jeans with a touch of Jackie O” in “Everyone She Knows” finds herself in a liminal space between her increasingly domesticated peer group and a bar scene she’s pretty sure she’s outgrown. It’s like a more wistful, self-aware version of Against Me!’s “Thrash Unreal,” except Chesney empathizes with the woman rather than judging her.
“Everyone She Knows” and the sensual Ed Sheeran co-write “Tip of My Tongue” were both co-produced by co-writer Ross Copperman — the most tracks Chesney’s done on a studio album without producer Buddy Cannon since the two began working together on 1996’s “Me and You.” Those tracks provide a nuanced update to Chesney’s sound, broadening a palette bounded on the opposite end by “Knowing You,” a nostalgic country waltz.
As with any Chesney album, there’s plenty of nostalgia, particularly in “Heartbreakers,” an anthem-rock rumination on the ultimate fates of three dream-chasing renegades who still fire his imagination. But “Here and Now” offers so much more, finding its happiness in moments like “a slow dance in a rainstorm and a kiss from who you love,” as Chesney sings in the lilting “Happy Does.”
An album filled with pleasures, “Here and Now” finds its moments of perfection in its two final songs, “Beautiful World” and “Guys Named Captain.” The first is a celebration of life that might have become a sing-along highlight of the planned summer shows, but a line like “Sometimes you just gotta let it take you where the rollercoaster ride meets the Tilt-A-Whirl” now takes on an emotional resonance Chesney couldn’t have foreseen when he recorded the song. And James Slater’s “Guys Named Captain,” written for his father, is simply one of the finest moments of Chesney’s lengthy career, a comforting character sketch with a bittersweet twist in its final lines.
Either would have made a satisfying album closer, but they’re stronger together, juxtaposed at the end of “Here and Now.” The album may have been imagined as a communal bonding experience for No Shoes Nation, but in the more solitary moments of this here and now, there’s still a life to be well-lived within its songs.
“Here and Now”
Warner Music Nashville