“Hunter Hayes” by Hunter Hayes

Hunter Hayes was the ultimate music-industry Wunderkind…a versatile multi-instrumentalist virtuoso and exceptionally gifted songwriter who was only twenty years old when his first album was released. As of this writing, he seems to have turned out to be something of a one-album wonder, but that comes across as immensely surprising when you listen to this album. There’s a reason it got two Grammy nominations, including netting Hayes a nomination for Best New Artist, which at the time was probably the most prestigious album Grammy short of Album of the Year.

Like Taylor Swift, Hayes was pigeonholed as a Country singer because he got his start on a Nashville record label, but while there are a few mildly Country-inflected songs here (such as the gently smoldering lead single “Storm Warning”), most of the album is pure Teen Pop. The Teenybopper genre was undergoing a huge resurgence around this time, and while some of the participants (such as One Direction or Carly Rae Jepsen) would mature into impressive artists later on, at the time Hayes was the most respectable act in the entire genre, and indeed was held up as an exception to the antipathy many people held for the Teenybopper boom.

There were a few people who accused Hayes of being insincere and even manipulative, but that’s generally because those people were uncomfortable with a teen idol who could write with such sensitivity and sweetness. Songs like “Wanted”, “If You Told Me To” and “Cry With You” constitute some of the most romantic songwriting of the current decade, with perfectly chosen words over gentle, moving melodies that would melt the heart of almost anyone, not just the teenage girls who were Hayes’ supposed target audience. Remember, this was the era of the early One Direction singles like “What Makes You Beautiful”, and Hayes’ material seemed like an impressive demonstration of how to do that kind of song right. Indeed, the last two singles from this album, “Somebody’s Heartbreak” and “I Want Crazy”, do arguably contain some slightly questionable implications, but both are so persuasively written that it’s actually kind of hard to tell, and you have to respect that kind of craftsmanship.

The album also contains its share of breakup songs to counterbalance the sweetness of the romantic pleas, and while a few of them take an angry tone reminiscent of Taylor Swift (“What You Gonna Do” and “More Than I Should” are absolutely scorching), others take a more philosophical approach to the issue. For example, “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me”, a duet with Folk-Pop great Jason Mraz, is a rueful shrug of a song detailing an experience anyone who’s ever had their heart broken knows: seeing happy couples all around you and thinking “Why not me?” And the gracefully insightful “In a Song”, one of the album’s high points, talks of the universal experience of finding specific songs to help you through your troubles and heartaches. While One Direction and Justin Bieber were writing generic love songs with idiotic lyrics, Hayes was penning insightful observations about universal human experiences, showing himself to be in another class entirely from his Teenybopper peers.

I’ll say one other thing for Hayes, beyond his songwriting prowess: he certainly knows how to play those instruments. Indeed, he reportedly played every single instrument heard on this album, and his prowess with them is often staggering, especially for someone so young. Especially good at showing off his guitar chops are the bluesy breakup ballad “Rainy Season” and the arena-sized anthem “Light Me Up”.

This album also got significant critical plaudits for its consistency, and they are well deserved. There isn’t a single real dud on the entire album, and even the bonus tracks on the “Encore” edition are uniformly up to the level of the original album, which is almost unheard-of in modern Pop outside of Taylor Swift and Eminem’s oeuvres. You normally expect this kind of consistent quality only from experienced professionals, and not even always then: seeing it from a twenty-year-old beginner is almost unbelievable.

As I said, Hayes essentially seems to have disappeared from the Pop scene after this album. His second album, Storyline (which if anything was even more brilliant than this one), did produce one semihit in “Invisible”, but apart from that you rarely hear from him anymore in the mainstream, even though he apparently still performs regularly and even released a third album in 2015. But with this album, he showed himself to be a shining talent with songwriting and instrumental chops far beyond his years. And given how many seemingly superannuated Pop stars have managed to make unexpected comebacks in this decade, it’s certainly possible that we have not heard the last of Hunter Hayes yet. I certainly hope he can make some kind of resurgence, because we can always use raw talent like his on the Pop charts.

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