Dwight Yoakam sings “I ain’t old, I’m just out of date,” but he doesn’t seem too upset. By sounding out of date he can make country songs into playthings rather than identity things, into devices for the wide and pretty bends of his wide and pretty voice. His singing is breezy enough not to weigh you down with its beauty, and the several sad songs on Population Me don’t weigh you down with their sadness, either. (Reminds me of Noddy Holder at the Felt Forum in 1974 introducing a Slade ballad by saying in tones of glee, “This is a sad song. A very sad song. So sad it makes me want to cry.”)
Yoakam starts the album with a song about feeling out-of-place in California (“the last cowboy band had left the stage”), which he performs as easygoing L.A. country rock. (The stage wasn’t a good place to look for your cow anyway.) The best tracks here are “An Exception to the Rule”—reminiscent of charmingly poppy folk-rock of 1966 (such as Mamas & Papas and We Five) and charmingly square country-hip of 1968 (Glen Campbell)—and “Population Me,” a bit of banjo hokum (the one and only verbal idea of which is that now that Dwight’s darling has left him, the effective emotional population of his world has been reduced to just him) that builds into one of the most intense songs of the year without ever losing its sense of relaxation.