If you’re not into Roman numerals (though, let’s face it, who isn’t?), the name of Trace Adkins’ latest album represents its chronological place within the singer’s discography. Of course, X is only technically accurate if we’re including Adkins’ two greatest hits packages in our calculations (which we usually don’t when counting an artist’s albums). Without those, this would only be Adkins’ eighth album. I guess VIII just doesn’t have the same zing.

That’s not to say, however, that X isn’t a fitting title. This collection plots a point well off the slope set by Adkins’ previous work, and Xseems appropriate considering that the album is stronger, that it takes more risks, and that it’s more emotionally affecting than any of Adkins’ first seven studio releases.

It’s because Adkins is one of the genre’s most consistent artists, however, that X is somehow unsettling. We expect our favorite behemoth baritone to put forth decent work that follows a very specific pattern—Adkins is about mainstream radio ditties with the occasional power ballad tossed into the mix. His music is pleasant, sometimes great to dance to, often irreverent, but rarely truly gripping. Even the first single from this project, “Muddy Water” (which is the last track on the album) aptly does what it sets out to do without being really memorable or particularly moving.

But there have been a few rare cases where the mild mannered Adkins has Hulked up and released something stronger than anyone expected. He catches us off guard in those moments of excellence, moments which notably include his seriously underappreciated “Arlington,” a song that was outperformed on the charts by classics like “Hot Mama” and “Chrome.”

X certainly has its share of ditties; Opener “Sweet” sounds like the creative offspring of a John Rich protégé and someone who really, really likes making lists of things, and the forgettable mid-tempo “Let’s Do That Again” is the most boring kind of groovy.

Likewise, “Marry for Money” can be classified as nothing other than ditty–although there’s something telling about its inclusion on the project. After all, major Nashville labels in today’s environment generally avoid releasing songs that are intentionally silly. When was the last time you heard something from a hitmaking mainstream artist that was purposely ridiculous? “Marry for Money” is silly to the point that it’s ridiculous, but in some bizarre way, it works. And it demonstrates that here Adkins is willing to take some chances, to tweak the rules of engagement just enough to make this album something that is unexpected and engaging.

And in doing so he reaches a level of excellence that he has achieved only spottily in the past.

There’s an almost unheard of diversity of material on X, from the Funkabilly groove of “Better Than I Thought It’d Be” (on which, in the song’s intro, Adkins’ seemingly gives a nod to Funkabilly matriarch Joanna Cotten), to the heavy truckin’ “Haulin’ One Thing,” to the up-tempo, quasi-Honky Tonk/contemporary country hybrid “Hillbilly Rich.”

All of those songs carve out a unique musical space, and each is fun in its own way. Of course, each is also more or less unfocused clutter—I have no idea, for instance, why there’s a lyrically cliché trucking song on this album—but the clutter is interesting enough to keep our attention while Adkins gets to the good stuff. The really good stuff.

Adkins’ best work is tied together by themes of redemption and reflection. When he sings about maturing, about overcoming the mistakes of his past and being “happy to be here,” he does so with a gravitas that makes us believe these aren’t just stories fabricated for the sake of the song, but that he’s lived every word.

And whereas Adkins’ previous albums have touched on these issues in passing, X puts them front and center. In fact, a majority of the album is comprised of truly outstanding material, which includes the sincere “All I Ask For Anymore,” and the fantastic Larry Cordle (of “Murder on Music Row” fame) co-written stone country ballad “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink.”

X’s most brightly shining moment, however, comes on the back-to-back pairing of “’Till The Last Shot’s Fired” and “I Can’t Outrun You,” two songs which producer Frank Rogers beautifully plays off each other, each discussing a certain kind of ghost—the former told from the voice of fallen soldiers who ask us to pray for peace, the later the voice of a lover that relentlessly haunts the singer’s heart.

Rogers is the best mainstream producer in the game right now, and he proves why here—both songs are perfectly sparse, “I Can’t Outrun You” almost unprecedentedly so.

Rogers does make one giant misstep, however—“’Till The Last Shot’s Fired” closes with an incredibly bizarre choral track that is supposed to be a manifestation of the voices of the fallen soldiers, but the arrangement makes the soldiers sound like chanting monks who are very concerned with proper enunciation. (Who knew ghosts had such strong diction?)

Aside from that, there is the fact that Adkins is already singing the song from from the perspective, and in the voice, of those soldiers. When the creepy choir jumps in and attempts to elevate the drama, it just comes off sounding, well, creepy. It also sounds forced, as if it’s trying to hammer home a point that it thinks we might not otherwise get. To that end, it undoes much of the sincerity that Adkins brings to his exquisite performance.

Still, it’s a truly affecting song, and the cornerstone of what is by far the best album of Adkins’ career. With X, Adkins soars above our expectations and shatters our notions of what he’s capable of. X is a wonderful country record.

Recommended Tracks: “‘Till The Last Shot’s Fired“, “I Can’t Outrun You“, “Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink.

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