Alex Williams is hellbent on shaking up the country establishment. In the aftermath of Chris Stapleton‘s watershed performance at the 2015 CMA Awards, with pop juggernaut Justin Timberlake in his corner, colossal shifts have rippled outward ⎯⎯ from Stapleton’s continued dominance on the Billboard 200 and Miranda Lambert’s platinum achievement with The Weight of These Wings to such up and comers as Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan collecting their first No. 1 hits. We still must contend with pop, dance and R&B flooding the format ⎯⎯ extended with Sam Hunt’s massive success for “Body Like a Back Road” (now perched just outside the Top 10 at pop radio) ⎯⎯ but there are signs consumers are outright exhausted with traditional business models and poor man’s shilling down on Music Row. Williams, for his part, throws caution to the wind with his dusty and lonesome disc of tunes, a revelatory debut album called Better Than Myself, released on Big Machine.
The titular track, in which he waxes lyrical about a comment made by a former band member, ignites the record ⎯⎯ “I was told not long ago that my songs are better than myself,” he unwraps ⎯⎯ and sets a rather somber, self-aware tone to a project mostly encased in gritty defiance. “So, you’re still listening right now / I’d say this song is doing pretty well,” he sings, a sheepish grin curling on his lips. “I don’t see it as stab at anyone, I see it as kind of a new beginning for what I’m doing,” he said of the song (cowritten with Greg Becker), which then became the impetus behind his brand of plucky, bleeding-heart Americana.
As much as the evocative 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger was critical to Willie Nelson’s career (and to Williams’ own transformative years), Better Than Myself places the bar of artistic accomplishment unbelievably high. It’s not nearly as well-sculpted or fine-tuned an endeavor as the former, but make no mistake: Williams’ reflections on really living (“More Than Survival,” co-penned with Marshall Altman), hazy-eyed whiskey-slingin’ (“Week Without a Drink,” cowritten with Brandon Kinneyand Jimmy Yeary) and the sting of lost love (“Old Tattoo,” the first solo cut) wrangle together as the year’s best, most promising arrival.
But the glaringly-obvious pinnacle of his talents comes with the second of two solo writes, “Few Short Miles (Bobby’s Song),” which walks the line delicately between hope and sorrow. “I was back to play some gigs in that East Texas town just off the coast / But I noticed something missing, like a piece lost from a puzzle / This time, I wondered where my good friend go,” he observes, an air of disenchantment casting his spirit downward, on a brooding tale about an older friend who passes away from cancer. Mickey Raphael, long-time player for Nelson, showers the song (and many others on the album) with heavenly, smokey harmonica. “I used to play gigs at a seaside trucker bar my cousin owned that was south of Houston in a little town in Sargent. I was 17 or 18, and I met Bobby at one of the gigs I was playing and he was a really inspiring guy,” Williams revealed the story behind the song. “We became really good friends in a short period of time while I was playing down there. I decided to write a song about it. He had cancer for a while, and I didn’t know that until the last few weeks before he passed.”
Smoked and soaked in the adept craftsmanship of producer Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell, Jennifer Nettles), Better Than Myself preserves some weighty topical lyricism even when he’s letting (musically) loose on such standouts as the swampy barn-burner “Strange Days” (“right now, it’s just all too much to bear,” he maintains in a hurricane of thumping blues guitar), the gentle sway of “Freak Flag” (another cowrite with Altman) and “Pay No Mind” (Williams, Becker), in which he claims “the only place I’m registered to vote is in an inebriated state,” as he reflects on the infamous 2016 political debates, rabid religiosity and various other schemers and crooks. “When I get together with the good woman of mine, I’m feeling light as a feather in this heavy, hazy times,” he upholds, keeping a level head and some humanity about him.
Conversely, he takes a moment to expose this “fucked up generation,” he spits on “Little Too Stoned,” a funk-based number which sees Williams at his most brazenly exasperated. “Yeah, I’m a little too gone to care what you think,” he notes, a slurred mix of alt-rock and outlaw waving mischievously behind him.
It might not be a career-defining bow, but Better Than Myself frames Williams as one of today’s most essential storytellers. “I do believe the good outweighs the bad,” he later punctuates. Indeed, good sir.
Grade: 4 out of 5
Better Than Myself is out now on iTunes, and you can spin below, via Spotify: