There is a critical point in any successful artist’s career where they must ask themselves: do I maintain the status quo or do I find another gear?
With the release of his 13th studio album, Welcome to the Fishbowl, June 19th on BNA Records, Kenny Chesney opts to find that gear and put the pedal to the floor in what’s destined to be a milestone chapter in an already historic career. Chesney calls Fishbowl the “most emotional” record he has ever recorded. With so many songs that already form the soundtrack to so many people’s lives, that in itself says a lot. But more than that, Fishbowl’s 12 songs showcase one of country music’s most important artists at the peak of his powers, simultaneously blending confidence and vulnerability, bravado and longing, in a way few artists could master, regardless of genre.
Longtime fans and newcomers alike will find Chesney’s Fishbowl both familiar and adventurous, with surprises around every corner and insightful observations at every turn. This is Chesney at his most ambitious and fearless, challenging the listener while providing an unforgettable ride. If Chesney crossed his own boundaries with 2009’s critically acclaimed Hemingway’s Whiskey, he ignores them completely this time around. Yet, with its melding of good times and deep longing, Welcome to the Fishbowl is unmistakably Kenny. And this is a good thing.
Produced by Chesney with longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon, Fishbowl delivers great songs penned by both Chesney himself and a diverse mix of top-shelf songwriters. Chesney says that in making the album he felt “solid in his skin” in his roles as songwriter, producer and interpreter of songs. “I’d been through a lot emotionally since Hemingway’s Whisky came out, and I think that’s reflected in this record,” he says. “My main goal when I went into the studio was to be honest with my fans and myself as a songwriter and a creative person. I do feel like, now more than ever, that I’m comfortable at being authentic, wherever that leads me. That’s why I’m proud of this record, because every song on it has been an evolution.”
The songs themselves are all sterling additions to the Chesney canon, and range lyrically and stylistically more than any Chesney album perhaps ever. Whether dealing in one way or another with the loss of loved ones, the astute cultural observations of the title cut, the never-ending challenges of romantic relationships, or simply a primer on having a hell of a good time, Chesney hits what he aims for without fail. Chesney admittedly challenged himself on Welcome To The Fishbowl, and listeners benefit from the process.
“There are songs on here I might not have had courage enough to put on a record in the past, and now I feel like it’s essential that I do these kinds of things at this point in my career,” Chesney says. “If there’s a thread on this record, it’s a thread of searching. ‘Come Over’ has it, ‘Always Gonna Be You’ has it, ‘El Cerrito Place’ has it.
These songs have a sense of longing and searching and just trying to figure it all out, to find that one thing we all search for, especially if you’re a busy, creative person, and that’s balance.”
Balance in life and balance in the listening. In an era when many albums come off as collections of unrelated songs, Fishbowl is conceived as a body of work and is sequenced to perfection, with heart wrenching lows expertly balanced against thrilling highs. At its core, Fishbowl is a commentary on the human condition, delivered with memorable melodies and complete artistry. Chesney took the freedom to let the record develop at its own pace, and it shows in the final product.
“We didn’t finish Hemingway’s Whiskey and say, ‘I want the next record to come out 18 months from right now.’ If Welcome To The Fishbowl wasn’t done, I wasn’t going to put it out,” he says. “But I felt like I said what I wanted to say, and I felt like the songs that we had and the sequence that we had was very tight and very listenable. You hope you end up with a collection of songs that says what you want to say, that makes the listener think, lets ‘em laugh, lets ‘em cry, miss somebody, love somebody, want to party at a show. That’s when I know that I’ve got it, and to add anything else would just be muddying the water.”
The water in Fishbowl is crystal clear. Listeners will surely relate to the barely contained urgency of the smoldering “Come Over,” celebrate with the delightfully non-judgmental throwdown of “Feel Like A Rock Star,” (with Tim McGraw), revel in the quirky social commentary of the title cut, and see themselves in the smartly observed “I’m a Small Town.” Sporting memorable melodies and charismatic vocals, “While He Still Knows Who I Am” and the haunting “Sing ‘Em Good, My Friend” are two of the more emotionally-charged songs Chesney has ever cut, and “El Cerrito Place” carries a sense of isolation that stays with the listener long after the last note is played. Conversely, “Makes Me Wonder” is all bluesy, upbeat romance, and “Time Flies” is a classic Chesney party anthem sure to be a showstopper on this summer’s ‘“Brothers Of the Sun’ Tour” with McGraw, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, and Jake Owen. Chesney’s confident vocals, the masterful musicianship, and artful sequencing take listeners on a ride that will touch on every aspect of living life.
Chesney says striking a balance between taking his fans in new directions and giving them what they want is a conscious choice that he specifically strived for on the previous album. “When you’ve been as blessed as I’ve been with all the songs I’ve had on the radio, it would be really easy to internally get complacent,” Chesney admits. “Any artist could be tempted to say, ‘this is what’s always worked, so this is what I’m gonna do.’ But, especially before I went in to cut Hemingway’s Whiskey, I realized that I just can’t keep re-releasing ‘Beer In Mexico’ every time. That song has its place, I love it and I’m proud I wrote it. But I really felt like that it was time for me as an artist to find songs and write songs where the melodies were different and what it was saying was different. To be able to push myself as an artist, and more importantly push my audience but not alienate them, that’s a fine line to walk. And I think we did that with [Whiskey’s] ‘Somewhere With You’ and ‘You And Tequila,’ and I think there are several moments on this record that will do that, too.”
Chesney says Fishbowl, “defines me where I am right now, and I’m happy about that. Getting to this spot has been years of work; I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I’m gonna start being honest with my fans and myself.’ It takes some time to be that vulnerable as a person, especially when you’re in the public eye.”
With the release of Welcome to the Fishbowl, Chesney is sure to be in the public eye in a big way. Chesney remains country music’s top ticket seller, moving more than a million tickets every time he takes his show on the road. The Brothers of the Sun stadium tour launches June 2 in Tampa, Florida, is already one of the hottest tickets of the summer, and several songs from the new record are sure to make the set list, including the hit single with McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star.”
Chesney welcomes both veteran fans and newbies. “I’m excited about the people that have been on this train with me a long time, listened to my music, dreamed this dream with me and saw everything that has happened,” he says. “I’m excited for them to hear this music and the evolution of where it’s at, and where I’m going. And I’m also excited for those people that are at their first show, that never bought one of my records, that don’t know anything about me at all. If Welcome to the Fishbowl is their first Kenny Chesney record, I’m really glad that this is their first one. I’m that proud of it.”