Morgan Wallen Offers a Lot of Partying, but Not Much Introspection, on ‘One Thing at a Time’

Morgan Wallen has become one of country music’s biggest stars of the past few years, riding his Everyman persona and brooding, whiskey-soaked country-rock songs to success not just on country radio, but in the pop sphere. But he’s caused controversy along the way, too. He was dropped from Saturday Night Live in late 2020 after being caught flouting pandemic guidelines. In February of the following year, a video emerged of the singer using a racial slur, which caused the Nashville machine to briefly withdraw its support of his music.

That scandal caused widespread (and necessary) discussions about country music’s relationship with race; his regular-guy image and heart-on-rolled-up-sleeve romanticism kept his fanbase streaming his music despite it all. Dangerous: The Double Album, released a month before the slur video was released by TMZ, clocked in at 30 tracks — a streaming-age bonanza that helped his already-lofty chart positions. One Thing at a Time bests that track quotient, with 36 songs and no double-album disclaimer. 

This megadose of Wallen doesn’t only ensure that One Thing at a Time will be lodged at the top of the charts for a while — alongside Dangerous, which is currently at Number Five on the Billboard 200 — it also reveals his preferred musical and lyrical tropes, as well as his fondness for simple, slippery vocal melodies that easily stick in listeners’ brains. His frizzled wail sounds most comfortable on midtempo cuts, which fuse the more downtempo efforts of hard-rock bands like Staind and Puddle of Mudd with Nashville touches like starlit slide guitars, while other tracks offer the occasional nod to wider musical trends, like the insistent trap snares of “Sunrise” or the Rich Gang interpolation that makes up the chorus of the “red-dirt wild child” chronicle “180 (Lifestyle).” The title track, meanwhile, combines country twang with snappy pop rock, its peppy guitars recalling the New Wave-leaning efforts of early-Eighties AOR acts.   


Wallen’s lyrics mostly focus on bars and beers and whiskey, and women who are often unavailable, whether because of recent breakups or other attachments; the songs he’s co-written and selected for One Thing frequently take the Sia-tested route of using a central metaphor as a fulcrum for more precise observations. The chugging “’98 Braves” compares a relationship gone sour to the titular Atlanta baseball team, which went on a tear during the regular season only to get bounced during the league championship series; “Wine Into Water,” a country-fried take on the brooding acoustic-guitar-led ballads of the Sunset Strip era, flips Jesus’ wedding miracle into a hope for reconciliation with an ex; “You Proof,” which peaked at Number Five on the Hot 100 last year, compares a lover’s intoxicating qualities to those of a high-grade whiskey.

One Thing at a Time avoids any direct mention of Wallen’s lightning-rod status, although “Don’t Think Jesus,” a jukebox-ready parable about a young man growing up in a judgment-filled world, circles the idea of the fallout from screwups. “World likes to rear back and throw a few stones/So boy wants to throw a few stones of his own,” he muses, seemingly getting ready to warm up his pitching arm. But then he changes course: “But Lord knows I ain’t perfect, and it ain’t my place/And I don’t think Jesus done it that way,” he asserts. Wallen originally released the track on Good Friday 2022, timing that made it feel like a half-hearted apology. In the context of the lengthy One Thing at a Time, it’s a brief moment of near-introspection that’s quickly taken over by more songs about, as he sings on the swirling “Good Girl Gone Missin’,” “good whiskey, bad decisions, [and] heartaches from some hard livin’.” Baby steps, maybe, or maybe not.