Steve Grand was destined to go viral. Handsome, muscular, possessed of a rich baritenor and unassuming “boy next door” charm, Grand hit the scene with his 2013 ballad “All-American Boy.” Almost two years and a superlatively massive Kickstarter campaign later, Grand finally delivers his debut album. To say the wait was worth it is something of an understatement, and over the course of 13 tracks, Grand ably displays why he struck such a chord with his audience.
Grand has clear talent as a songwriter and, with the exception of two songs, wrote the entire album himself. The production, handled mostly by Aaron Johnson, is ridiculously professional and tight. Comparisons to Mutt Lange, the man who turned Shania Twain into one of the most successful singers in the world, would not be inappropriate. The sound beds are lush, but rarely overwhelming, an inviting kind of Spotify-ready Wall of Sound. Vintage analog synth sounds sit well next to guitars of all stripes, all mixed with harmonious background vocals, thumping kick drums and strong, serious snares.
A production like that can even make the weakest artist seem like a powerhouse, but Grand manages to do that all on his own. His vocal is never less than confident. You might even call it authoritative. He rides each song like a bronco, even the ballads, only rarely managing to over-sing his lyrics. Even more welcome, there are almost no noticeable effects on his voice throughout the album’s run time, aside from very basic things like reverb. No AutoTune, no vocoders, no fancy filters. Grand’s voice, like his music, is proudly unpretentious.
Grand has been described by some as the first openly gay country artist, which is not true (and something Grand himself corrects). Other gay men have performed country music, and Grand…well, his songs are sort of country, sort of not. Mostly not. He’s country in the same way that Taylor Swift or (again) Shania Twain are country. He’s got a foot in country, sure, but he’s got another foot, an arm, and a good portion of his torso in pop. While his lyrics aren’t shy about dropping tried and true tropes of modern country music—beer, whiskey, disdain for city life, patriotic metaphors—many of these songs aren’t much different than the power pop found on the Billboard charts.
The album is almost subversive in its casual use of male pronouns for the love interests Grand sings about. Grand may be openly gay, but this album never flies a rainbow flag except for the unapologetically 80s dance track “We Are The Night,” which sounds like an unreleased recording from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way sessions, in all the best ways. Even the title track and opener “Say You Love Me,” in which Grand pines for the straight (or possibly bisexual/closeted) man he can’t have, doesn’t come off as dramatically different than a song any singer might perform about an unattainable lover. In the uplifting, rocking “Next To Me,” Grand tells his listener to get naked and on his knees, and it sounds like a good time had by all.
In fact, optimism is a common thread in the album, even in the songs that aren’t necessarily about happy subjects, like the smooth, closing time kiss-off “Lovin’ Again” or the racing, twang-friendly “Better Off.” Of course, the album’s best moments are when Grand embraces his optimistic side, like the party jam “Soakin’ Wet” or on “Stay”, a bouncing ode to horseplay under the covers and one of the album’s clear standouts. Even on the title track, here re-recorded, Grand doesn’t lament his unrequited straight-boy crush as much as he finds strength in himself in confessing it.
Grand’s pop sensibilities can sometimes work against him, though. Several of the songs, despite their pristine production and passionate vocals, feel as if they could have been sung by any number of artists. Grand, however, owns his music completely and totally, and with time and patience, he’ll hit upon that truly idiosyncratic vein of creativity that clearly says, “This is Steve Grand.” If this album is any indication, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10/ A-