If there’s nothing at all revolutionary about its brand of polished, contemporary country, Chris Young’s Neon at least gives the Nashville Star winner a platform for his impressive voice. Though he isn’t in the same league as Ronnie Dunn or Gary Allan in terms of singing with gritty, emotional depth, Young nonetheless has one of Nashville’s most powerful and versatile voices. Unfortunately, the songs on Neon aren’t nearly as distinctive. Opener “I Can Take It from There” incorporates the idiom of its title into an otherwise by-the-numbers come-on, with Young preparing to put on a Conway Twitty record and insisting that he “ain’t gonna stop lovin’ you until the candle burns out.” It’s not a bad song per se, but it’s too familiar in its content and not so novel in its execution that it stands out from countless other country songs that have said the same thing.
“Old Love Feels New” and “You” suffer from the same problem in that they lack a distinctive point of view. “She’s Got This Thing About Her” and “When She’s On” could have been written and performed by just about any male singer in Nashville or have turned up on anyone else’s album. Young co-wrote much of the album with some of Nashville’s busiest hired-gun songwriters, including Luke Laird and Brett James, and the result is that Neon consists mostly of filler that rarely contains a single first-person detail that would suggest the songs were based on a real person’s actual experiences. It’s committee-based songwriting at its worst.
To his credit, Young is able to elevate the material through his commanding performances, but the handful of genuinely well-written songs on the set make it clear that he’s yet to reach his full potential. Lead single “Tomorrow” offers a heady mix of self-loathing and regret, as Young sings of grudgingly hooking up with an ex. “And tomorrow you won’t believe it,” he promises, “‘Cause when I pass your house/I won’t stop/No matter how bad I want to.” The song scans as a man’s version of LeeAnn Womack’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” which isn’t bad company to keep.
The title track is nearly as strong, a honky-tonk ballad that uses some creative imagery to explain the seductive draw of a bar. Young brings an authentic sense of resignation to the song as he sighs, “The light at the end of this tunnel is neon.” Though it’s a bit too on the nose as a riff on Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” “Save Beer, Drink Water” gives Young the opportunity to sell a rowdy uptempo cut that boasts a few clever turns of phrase. The narrative of “Lost” is fairly rote, but the song’s tricky melody is something that only a singer of Young’s caliber could pull off. When Neon provides him with a song that’s actually worthy of his considerable chops, Young really shines. It’s a shame, then, that most of the set finds Young fighting an uphill battle against some lackluster material.