After four and a half years, singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw released his third studio album titled Popular Mechanics. “It’s kind of like my big musical leap. It sounds a lot different than my first couple full-length records,” he says. “And I feel like it’s my chance to show the full spectrum of the music that I love and that has influenced me.” From ‘80s pop to ‘90s Brit-pop to Tom Petty, Popular Mechanics strays from the sound Outlaw held close on his debut from 2015, Angeleno, and his sophomore album, Tenderheart that followed in 2017. In many ways, Popular Mechanics feels like freedom to Outlaw.
Outlaw is surrounded by a family made up of engineers. The idea for the unique and technical title came from an epiphany Outlaw had while having a talk with his father about the challenges he faces at his company. “I guess I started realizing that in everything you do where you say, ‘Oh, this was created by an artist.’ It was probably also, in some ways, created and supported by a scientist or an engineer: someone who understands the technical side of what it is you’re trying to accomplish,” he explains with a fiery passion. “Machines, technology, has always played a big part in music and I think I wanted to tap into that to try and see how far I can take this.” The introspective thinking from Outlaw led to playing with different sounds and testing the waters with experimental bendings of musical genres.
The lead single for Popular Mechanics was “For the Rest of Our Lives,” an upbeat, acoustic track with a sweet, endearing message. There were numerous tunes Outlaw could imagine as the lead single so it was a difficult choice to make. At first, he thought he’d give fans a bridge from his more country sound into this new era he’s made for himself, but he decided against that. “I was like, you know what? I think we need to just rip off the band-aid,” he exclaims. “It’s a really strong tune. But basically saying for better or for worse, this is very different than what I’ve done before, and if people who liked me because of the music I made before like the new song, then great. And if they get kind of freaked out because it’s different, that’s okay too.”
Most of the songs on Popular Mechanics were written solely by Outlaw, and while most people would think that’s a power move, he admits it’s mainly due to unease and angst explaining, “The reason I’ve gravitated to it is out of fear. For me, writing music, it’s obviously personal. Creating art in any way feels intimate right?” He reflects on being thrown into co-writes when he first made the move to Nashville and things felt uncomfortable being vulnerable in front of strangers. He continues, “I had to not give in to that fear but embrace the excitement of getting to work with someone. Some of the songs on the record that are co-writes are some of my favorite songs.” Some of his co-writers on the album include Cheyenne Medders who wrote the title track and “Daydreaming” with Outlaw and Steven Fiore who helped write “For the Rest of Our Lives.”
Track five, “Sun Ain’t Set,” is deemed the most personal number by Outlaw. “It’s both a combination of me being introspective looking at myself, my successes and failures,” he tells us. “But also because the song was finished during the lockdown, I think I was also channeling a lot of hurt and pain that a lot of other people were feeling.” On “Sun Ain’t Set” Outlaw attempts to pinpoint hard to express emotions and the feeling of losing one’s identity as he sings, “Your star ain’t rising, but your sun ain’t set / You’re taking it hard, but at least you’re taking it / And if you just walk out that door / You won’t be lonely anymore.” It has a flowing, cosmic soundscape that adds to its somber yet hopeful message.
For longtime fans and new listeners, Outlaw wishes people who embark on a listening journey with the 11 songs on Popular Mechanics to be open-minded and not focus on categorizing the project into a single genre. “I hope that people take away from it the joy of exploration. It took some courage for me to show this other side of myself; it took some courage for me to make some songs that sound different than what people were expecting and I took so much joy in that and I feel such a sense of accomplishment in this record that I don’t think I felt in other albums,” he says. “It’s a leap and I hope they’ll give it a shot.
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