It’s a throwback, nothing wrong with that
Every genre is built on tradition, though country ramps up the respect for forefathers to another level. On the fourth verse of “Weird Thought Thinker,” Joshua Hedley lists off six-country legends, most of which are in outlaw country and therefore are not a good indication of the overall sound of Mr. Jukebox. He claims that the album is “not a throwback” because his style of music has never gone out of style, which is surprising given that his style did arguably become passe due to the grievances of the outlaw movement that Hedley himself mentioned.
Said style is rooted in the countrypolitan of the ’70s, or perhaps even further back to a time before rock ‘n’ roll was invented, and it has enough lush, warm production to make up for a complete lack of grit or edge. Guitars serve primarily as texture while melody comes from the piano, organs or fiddles. There’s a good balance of up-tempo, rhythmic honky-ton on “Weird Thought Thinker” and “Let Them Talk” and morose ballads like “I Never (Shed A Tear)” and a cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Prominent background vocals abound, from gentle cooing to vibrant harmonies to do-woppy nonsense syllables, and though the overall aesthetic is homogeneous, these help to break up the overall experience and give each song a character.
Hedley’s love of tradition extends to the lyrics, which consist of familiar topics like break-ups, the long and lonely road and personifying an inanimate object a la “Alcohol” by Brad Paisley. There are moments of effective detail; the second verse of “Counting All My Tears,” in which he discovers an old flame has a new husband and child and yet can’t bring himself to move on, is a mature and self-reflective tale. The title track tells of his come-up in Nashville, where he performed in bars for years and earned the nickname “Mr. Jukebox” for his ability to play anything asked of him. Comparing himself to an actual jukebox works to both emphasize his nearly-robotic skill and how he felt used like an object, and it’s the one truly affecting story on the record. Outside of these, there are too many break-up songs that don’t possess enough distinctive detail to stand out, and the escapism of “Let’s Take a Vacation” and “Let Them Talk” are only more enjoyable due to their comparative scarcity rather than their individual merit.
The consistent weak link in Mr. Jukebox is Mr. Jukebox himself. Though he delivers a couple of strong vocal performances, especially the anguish of “Don’t Waste Your Tears” and its stellar cinematic swell on the hook, his vocal production leaves a lot to be desired. There’s either too much reverb or too much compression on him, as his voice never feels like it’s given enough room yet also has a faint, distracting warble to it. It’s the only production mishap on a record that is otherwise smooth, buttery and fairly inoffensive. It does nothing new, though in an era where country has been increasingly cannibalized by EDM and Trap, perhaps that is a new form of novelty.