Coming off of the success of his previous double album, Human, back in 2021, many fans of the Til You Can’t singer were anxious to see how he was going to follow up with the release of Leather. Though it’s not my favorite country album of the year by any stretch of the imagination, it is a very solid entry from Johnson.
I can’t help but love how unabashedly Texas country this album truly is. Although Johnson has firmly placed himself into mainstream, he is not making modern country in the slightest. Leather employs everything from fiddle to steel guitar, resulting in a very sonically pleasant listen. As someone who is a champion of traditional instruments in country music, this record is an absolute win from that aspect.
No song showcases this better than Johnson’s current single, The Painter. Written for his wife, the track reads as a sincere love letter to her. I love the way he plays with the concepts of color, painting and canvas throughout the song. The final line of the chorus, “My life was black and white, but she’s the painter.” is such a great one that truly ties the entire song together. The minimal production, primarily consisting of an acoustic guitar and some violins really let the song breathe lyrically.
Leather has some really subtle, genius songwriting moments here. Johnson’s style isn’t poetic in the same way writers like Zach Bryan, Jason Isbell and Tyler Childers are. However, he and all of the co-writers present on the album pack the record with some fun wordplay within the titles of the songs. Work Boots, Dirt Cheap and Whiskey Bent all have some really clever framing of the compound nature of these titles.
Whiskey Bent, written by Rocky Block, Adam James and Mikey Reaves and features rising star Jelly Roll, is a strong example of the aforementioned title framing and wordplay present throughout the album. In this track, Johnson talks about the dangers of alcoholism and the redemption found in sobriety.
It’s a powerful song that plays on the understood meaning of whiskey bent (being extremely stubborn and uncompromising while drunk). Instead, Johnson and Jelly Roll twist the phrase, lamenting how they’re trying to fix everything that alcoholism ruined (i.e. everything that whiskey bent). It’s a wildly clever yet somber play on that old idiom that is sure to resonate with anyone who has battled addiction.
Work Boots is another fun example of fun wordplay. In a bit of a change of pace compared to his recent releases, Johnson decided to provide an extra twangy, fun track with Work Boots. The entire song hinges on the clever chorus. Instead of the titular boots being “work boots,” Johnson is quite literally telling his boots to work and go ask a girl to dance (“So come on work boots, we’ve got a little work to do”). It’s a clever song that once again shows how good writing isn’t just deep, reflective tracks. Country songs can be fun and a bit goofy while still being well-written.
As for my negative, it’s a bit of a complicated one. There are truly no bad songs present here throughout. That being said, however, I couldn’t help but leave my multiple listens feeling slightly empty. There are plenty of solid tracks, but there’s nothing that I find myself truly wanting to come back to other than the aforementioned, The Painter and Dirt Cheap. It feels slightly superficial. While everything sounds extremely country and there are flashes of great songwriting moments throughout, I’m not quite sure if there is a tangible overarching theme present here.
Overall, Leather is a solid entry for Johnson. While it doesn’t have an extreme amount of staying power for me, I cannot ignore how great this album sounds from a production standpoint. If you like country music with a whole lot of fiddle and steel, Leather is an absolute must–listen. I simply wish there was a bit more to grapple with on this record personally.
Listen to Dirt Cheap, The Painter and Work Boots here: