Change is a good thing, we tell ourselves. It's inevitable, something that we have to accept to cope in a world where everything is different every time you look up. We also tell ourselves that as time marches on, all things will evolve, leaving shells of their former inspirations in the history books if they're lucky. But Dwight Yoakam, who has been around country music longer than just about anyone that didn't have a hand in founding the genre, just hasn't really seemed to give a shit that the world of country music has changed around him. If you're Rust Cohle or Dwight Yoakam, time is a flat circle.
Second Hand Heart, Yoakam's 14th studio release, stays fiercely true to the honky-tonk, hillbilly aesthetic and sound that made him famous in the late 1980s. You could throw this record into any of the four decades that Yoakam has been making music and it would make perfect sense, still top the charts. But with this record, Yoakam manages to somehow maintain his classic sound while recording one of the most stylistically diverse records of his entire career.
He's been relatively quiet since the release of 3 Pears, a woefully underrated record that was somehow great even though Kid Rock was involved, in 2012. Yoakam's songs haven't been country radio material since the 1990s, so he's been functionally tossed over into the Americana bin, which mainstream music happily ignores until it's ready to let folksy bands blow up the charts for a while. See: Mumford and Sons. Yoakam's relevance, though, has really never waned. On Second Hand Heart, he furiously makes the case that he still very much belongs in a country music world where authenticity is an endangered species.
Yoakam comes out guns blazing on "In Another World," a vocally impressive and nostalgic track that's prone to make people yell out, "Hell yeah!" Fans will know exactly what he's talking about. In terms of sound, it sounds just like the Yoakam songs that you grew up listening to on country radio, except he's just gotten better as a songwriter, performer and, well, everything over the last 20 years. Frankly, it would probably be impossible for Yoakam to change his sound; it is so driven by his distinctive, rich voice that he'd probably make Bangerz by Miley Cyrus sound country as fuck.
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It is also Yoakam's voice that makes him such an impressive storyteller. On tracks like "Off Your Mind" and the record's title track, he could be singing the word "goldfish" over and over and you'd still get the point. Every consonant and vowel is dripping with emotion, something that has always been Yoakam's signature. If his heart is broken, so is yours. If he's happy, so are you. These 10 tracks are a brilliant mix of melancholy and making peace with the way things are, sprinkled with a little old sage advice. The Dwight Yoakam of 1986 was fresh, and in 2015, the artist is perfectly seasoned. (He's probably still wearing the same old T-shirt, too.)
Let's just say that after nearly 40 years in the business, Dwight Yoakam hasn't gotten old and boring. A cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow" could have been a stale cash-grab because people just love that damn song, and Yoakam was just born to sing bluegrass tunes. Instead, it's a high-energy, rollicking barn burner that even the Soggy Bottom Boys didn't see coming. Even the more downtempo tracks -- and there are plenty -- are intense, energetic and fun. At this point in his career, Yoakam is clearly just having a good time: At the beginning of "Liar," a biting track from the perspective of a jilted lover, he says, "We have to record this one, just for kicks." Apparently, Yoakam gets his kicks by recording music that somehow manages to surpass what he was doing when he was one of the biggest names in country music.
Somehow, those vocals are complemented by even more impressive instrumentation and musicality. Yoakam's band is arguably the best in the business, capable of wringing out more heartache and honky-tonk from every single note than you thought possible. The playing on this record is so distractingly good, to the point where you're actually grateful for long guitar, harmonica and steel guitar interludes. Then, it's almost as if you're rewarded when Yoakam launches into the chorus.
The real brilliance of Second Hand Heart is in its effortlessness. It doesn't have to try to be authentic or country or even good -- it just is. As the rest of country music grasps for a little inspiration from the old greats, Yoakam is just doing his thing, making music with his buddies. As much as we like to complain that country music is taking its last gasping breaths, Dwight Yoakam roars back from the 1990s and proves us all wrong. For that, we should all be grateful.
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