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Sam Hunt’s ‘Southside’ Is a Big Deal, Even If He’s Casual About It

The country star’s new album is ambitious, even if the songs are at their best when they’re at their humblest

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’ma take it slow just as fast as I can,” purred wily country superstar Sam Hunt on his very silly 2017 smash hit “Body Like a Back Road,” and then, just to really drive the point home, he waited three full years to put that song on his new album. Yes, Southside, the hilariously long-awaited follow-up to Hunt’s cataclysmic 2014 debut Montevallo, finally came out Friday; yes, he fussed over this goddamn record for a solid half-decade, just to get everything absolutely perfect, only to release it [gestures futilely at recent world events] now. Amazing. You don’t Google a song as old as “Body Like a Back Road” to remember when he put it out—you carbon-date it. That it sounds better now than it ever did—still pretty stupid, but winsome now in its flagrant naiveté—is a plot twist, kinda funny and kinda crushingly sad, and worthy of, yes, a country song.

Hunt, a Georgia native and minor college football star, is far from the first Nashville disruptor to try his hand at rapping, at oversharing, at charmingly arrogant self-actualization. (Think of him as the young zen quarterback, secure in his own immortality, who animates the lately rhapsodized Fountains of Wayne song “All Kinds of Time.”) But Montevallo, though familiar in its subject matter (see “Break Up in a Small Town”), crammed louche talk-sung verses into brash EDM-drop choruses (see “Break Up in a Small Town” again) and sounded like a revelation, a mainstream country landmark for a post-genre universe. I think about Hunt’s thing about the grass growing back on his front lawn where his ex used to park her car, like, once a week. (Same song.) He’s an everyman of almost superhuman vividness, and he was bound to turn the simple labor of putting out another album into a vaguely mystical and beyond-laborious ordeal.

Southside is 12 tracks and not quite 40 minutes long, and does not betray, from its hyper-casual cover shot on down, its status as probably the most anxiously awaited sophomore country album of Hunt’s generation. (The dog’s not even looking at the camera.) Sometimes he’s a staunch traditionalist: The album’s very first line, a forlornly crooned “I’d put the whiskey back in the bottle,” could be the first line of any country album released by anybody, ever. That song, “2016,” is, like most of Hunt’s best songs, a tender and perceptive ode to romantic regret, sweet and remarkably apolitical given that its chorus expresses his desire to “take 2016 and give it back to you.” He sounds great, and reenergized, but not so much like a boundary-smashing iconoclast fixing to lead the revolution.

And then “Hard to Forget” happens. It kicks off with a sample of postwar honky-tonk giant Webb Pierce’s 1953 jam “There Stands the Glass,” chopping and stretching good ol’ Webb’s nasal syllables as the brash beat kicks in, a feat of bumptious hick-hop sacrilege that powers, yes, a tender and perceptive ode to romantic regret. “Got a bottle of whisky but I’ve got no proof / That you showed up tonight in that dress just to mess with my head,” Hunt quips in the chorus, a raucous house party raging all around him. It’s all so simple, so ridiculous, so instantly indelible. “This will be a fantastic summer song,” my Ringer colleague Meg Schuster observed, “if we still get a summer.”

Like any early-2020 album served up by anybody, Southside was written and recorded (and frequently delayed) with no clue as to the tumultuous coronavirus-ravaged environment into which it’d eventually be released. But Hunt knows a thing or two about inner tumult, about tenuous good times elucidated through gritted teeth, about pathos that feels communal even if it’s terribly specific to him. The narrative of this record, and really his whole career to date, revolves around his romantic partner, Hannah Lee Fowler: They split shortly before Montevallo’s release (it’s named after her hometown, and the split was his fault), and he spent much of the intervening years between that record and this one very publicly wooing her back. Southside’s closing track “Drinkin’ Too Much”—which also dates to 2017, and in its moody solipsism is Hunt’s most Drake-like song amid fierce competition—closes with this:

Hannah Lee, I’m on my way to you
Nobody can love you like I do
I don’t know what I’m gonna say to you
But I know there ain’t no way
I know there ain’t no way
No there ain’t no way we’re through

Anyway, now they’re married. Repurposing this three-year-old, paralyzingly depressed jam as the album’s dramatic conclusion is the most vulnerable sort of power move: See, I called my shot. Hunt, as you might’ve guessed by now, has little use for chronological time. “Drinkin’ Too Much” is preceded by a clever and expertly lightweight anti-Instagram rant called “Breaking Up Was Easy in the ’90s”; another moody and extra-bombastic breakup song, “Downtown’s Dead,” is nearly two years old itself, and kicks off with Hunt singing, “Thanks Hannah, thank you for coming back” deep in the mix. Southside is the country-music equivalent of watching Memento, the narrative scrambled, our lovers torn apart or triumphantly reunited as the plot dictates.

It’s all quite ambitious, even if the songs themselves are at their best when they’re at their humblest. “Kinfolks” and “Downtown’s Dead” both have nimble and gigantic choruses that require no backstory; so does the melancholy “Young Once,” on which Hunt tosses off killer line after killer line that fully hits you only the 12th time you hear it. (“Who knows how long we’re always gonna feel this way?”) The woozy drum-machine backbeat mixes expertly with, y’know, the banjo on “Let It Down.” And if you’re in it for the quote-unquote rapping, with Hunt somehow both at his bro-iest and most profound, then “That Ain’t Beautiful” is your jam, even if it’s mansplaining of the most mellifluous sort:

And you can split an Adderall
With a stranger in the bathroom stall
Send a misspelled text to an ex
Put his fist through your bedroom wall
‘Cause bein’ treated like shit
Is really comfortable to you

Sam Hunt songs are perspective-mangling magic tricks: They’re reliably both not that deep and fathomless. “Sinning With You” is a sex jam that doubles as an alarmingly astute meditation on spirituality, and I feel as weird typing that as you do reading it, but sheesh: “Your place or my place / His grace and your grace / Felt like the same thing to me” probably won’t take 12 repetitions to sink in. Southside is a huge deal in a monumentally casual way, and every track on it, however ancient it might be, is both deeply personal and totally perfect for general merriment and/or misery. Whether we get a summer this summer or not.