“Could you tell that I was meant for you? / And did you know from the very first kiss that I was it?” sings Shane Smith in “Whirlwind,” one of the cornerstone tracks of his brand new album Hail Mary. With his band the Saints right beside him, Smith dispatches words that are as strong as his smoky vocal is, but the guitar cushioning his every utterance has a much vaster vocabulary that any country poet you’ve ever heard before. Hail Mary sees this group of modern day folk heroes applying their amalgamation of red, white and blue melodies in a more experimental way than they ever have prior to now, and it’s been raising a lot of eyebrows this summer to say the least.
“Oklahoma City,” “Heaven Knows,” “The End” and “We Were Something” have virtually nothing in common with the FM country twang that I’ve been sampling from this year, and that could be what makes them such fetching finds this June. The Saints’ multilayered arrangements and string-centric compositions are too broadminded and flexible to fit in with the commercial country tunes that have been topping the charts this season, but I wouldn’t necessarily lump them in with the eclectic alternative country movement that’s debatably hit a creative and marketing wall in 2019.
This tracklist is remarkably fluid from beginning to end, with songs like “Parliament Smoke” leaving a conceptual cliffhanger that is immediately resolved in the following track. There’s never an occasion on which we feel boxed in by the swirling strings nor the bludgeon of the bassline (the latter of which is restricted to the heavier material occupying the first five songs on Hail Mary). Shane Smith’s velvety vocal lends consistency to a wide-ranging collection of textures and stylized melodies in this record, and effectively asserts himself as one of the more urbane lead singers currently recording this type of music.
To some extent, Hail Mary feels like two albums in one. As previously mentioned, the first five tracks – “Heaven Knows,” “Whirlwind,” “Oklahoma City,” “Parliament Smoke” and “Hail Mary” – have a lot more sizzle than the folky six that follow them, but the mix of hot and heavy grooves with toned-down ballads doesn’t come across as scattered or overly experimental. On the contrary, what Shane Smith & the Saints accomplish with this LP is something that should be commended by country fans young and old alike; they basically align the genre’s aesthetical pillars with the moxie of a burgeoning generation that isn’t afraid to augment a traditional sound with forward-thinking, contemporary stylization.
If you haven’t already had the chance to hear Shane Smith & the Saints’ music for yourself, then I would highly recommend checking out Hail Mary before diving deeper into their complete catalogue. If there was ever an album to package everything that this band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders into a singular group of cathartic, heartfelt songs, this is definitely it. I’m eager to hear what they come up with next, but in the meantime, this is undeniably the most on-point and creatively original music to be released by this group.