From ‘Pipe Dream’ to Double Album: How Morgan Wallen Pushed His Limits on ‘Dangerous’
On ‘Dangerous,’ Wallen pushes himself on every level.
Morgan Wallen; Photo by John Shearer
Even with his recently-won CMA Awards trophy, a growing collection of No. 1 hits and a hotly-anticipated sophomore project, Morgan Wallen says he still feels a little bit like a black sheep. “I think I’ve always got a chip on my shoulder, in a way,” he acknowledged during a recent virtual press event. “I don’t know completely why I have that attitude.”
As much as Wallen’s career has grown over the past year, 2020 has brought him some tough times, too. He found himself at the center of tabloid gossip on a couple of occasions, such as when he was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in downtown Nashville last May, and later in the year, a pandemic-era partying spree in Alabama cost him his debut slot on Saturday Night Live (though he was later invited back to the show, and even got to poke fun at himself in a skit that riffed off of the incident.)
Now, the singer says, he’s seen some success, but he’s also seen the downsides of celebrity. He’s not interested in coasting on his accomplishments, and he hopes he never will be.
“I don’t know that I ever wanna have an ‘I made it’ attitude,” Wallen muses. “If I get to that point, maybe one day, when I’m a little older and wiser — maybe I’ll have it then. But right now, I’m not trying to have that attitude.”
On Dangerous, from start to finish, Wallen makes it clear that he’s not phoning it in. From bringing new stylistic influences to his songs to reaching new levels of painful, cutting honesty in his lyrics, he pushes himself on every level. Wallen sings as if no one has ever heard his name before, as if he were still a completely unknown artist who needs to build his fanbase. He delivers each song with the urgency of a performer who’s hungry, and who’s got something to prove.
In a literal sense, Wallen gives fans more bang for their buck on this album because it’s 30 songs long. (32, if you count the Target-exclusive tracks.) He started writing material for it right after dropping his 2018 studio debut, and by the time early 2020 rolled around, he’d started jokingly floating the idea of a double album with his team.
“We probably had about 20 songs that we felt were ready to be recorded, that we felt were worthy of being recorded,” he explains. “I gravitated towards the idea of a double album. I personally didn’t think it was gonna be possible, just because I was scheduled to do a lot of touring in 2020. I didn’t think I was gonna have enough to put the proper amount of effort into a double album like that, and I just kind of passed it off as a pipe dream.”
Then, quarantine arrived, drastically changing Wallen’s plans for the year and giving him more time to focus on his album. At the beginning of the pandemic, he had a creative spurt, writing “four or five” new songs quickly. The more he looked at the year ahead, and the more new material he wrote, he began to realize that his double album “pipe dream” wasn’t much of a stretch after all.
When he first announced that his project was going to have 30 songs, Wallen promised that Dangerous would be all killer, no filler: That he’d painstakingly worked on each song to make sure there weren’t any tracks that were too alike, and that there weren’t any tracks on the album he’d press “skip” on as a listener.
“I felt every song was unique and told a unique story,” he explains. “I was proud of all of them.”
And while many of the songs on Dangerous can be described as falling into two basic categories — loud-and-proud, party-ready bangers and more introspective, emotional and lyric-focused tracks — there’s considerable variation within both groupings. Making a longer album allows Wallen to dial into storytelling specifics in a way that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to if each song was covering a wider swath of subject matter.
“7 Summers” taps into personal nostalgia, for example, while also bringing in a nostalgic musical element — an “old school” feel that Wallen credits to his love of the Eagles. “Still Goin’ Down,” the rowdy first track off the second disc, pokes fun at country cliches while still asserting that for many listeners, those cliches aren’t hackneyed; they’re simply everyday reality. Wallen counts himself in that category of people, and cheekily paints himself into the lyrics by name-checking his own debut single, “The Way I Talk.”
Few songs exemplify how Wallen stretched himself as an artist on this album better than “Living the Dream,” one of three songs he shared soon after announcing Dangerous. That was another song with rock production influences, Wallen points out.
“Honestly, [when we were writing], we copied and pasted some drums from a Fleetwood Mac song and started just trying to get that vibe,” he says. “We changed it in the final production, obviously. We played real drums, added different grooves and beats. But I wanted to capture that feeling.”
Emotionally, “Living the Dream” was uncharted ground for Wallen, too.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a song or perform a song like that again. I think it’s one of those songs where I said what I said, and that’s kinda where it’s at,” he admits. “And I’m really proud of the way we wrote it.”
Set to a pulsing mid-tempo, “Living the Dream” finds Wallen unburdening his emotions about the darker parts of celebrity. “Between alcohol and women / Adderall and adrenaline / I don’t ever get no rest / Signed my life away to be the life of the party / Yeah, to everybody else,” he sings in one verse. “Y’all, it ain’t as good as it seems / This livin’ the dream is killin’ me, killin’ me, killin’ me…” he repeats in the chorus.
Wallen has made no secret about feeling, at times throughout 2020, as if he were spinning out of control. He even took a break from the spotlight after his planned SNL performance got scrapped, admitting to fans that he’d “lost himself a little bit.” But when he wrote “Livin’ the Dream,” Wallen says a lot of those difficult times hadn’t happened yet — that the song’s lyrics were kind of “prophetic” in that way.
“I wasn’t really realizing the weight of what was being said in that song,” he continues. “I was starting to experience it at some level, because, you know, those were honest feelings. But the longer time that’s went on since we wrote it…it’s a song I’m kind of growing with.”
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To this day, Wallen says he’s still learning how to navigate celebrity. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in complete control [of my career], and sometimes I feel like I’m getting bucked off,” he notes with a grin. “I was told growing up that to whom much is given much is required, and I’ve always believed that. But I’ve also always been the type to learn my lessons the hard way.
“Some of the things that come along with success, and with fame — quote unquote — it’s different,” the singer adds. “I wasn’t raised up to be able to understand how to handle it. You know, my mom didn’t cultivate me to be famous. I’m still just figuring it out.”
But there is one part of his career that’s always good, no matter what, Wallen goes on to say, and that’s his relationship with the people who love his music. He’s confident that he can be himself in front of his listeners, and that’s a big part of what allowed him to make such a deep, expansive and emotionally transparent record.
“I feel like they understand me. I feel like I don’t really have to do anything different than what I normally do,” he relates. “I feel very relaxed in that sense. I don’t have to wear many hats; I just kind of have one hat that I wear and they get that. So that part is really easy for me. That part, I feel at home in.”