Saturday, September 21, 2013

album review: 'off the beaten path' by justin moore

Let's talk about pandering in art.

Now, as somebody who listens to music that is shamelessly commercial and designed to appeal to certain demographics, I'm very much familiar to acts attempting to pander or cater to their unique fanbase, who will inevitably lap up whatever they put out. Now, I'll admit that part of this is a testament to the feedback relationship between artists and their fans, which has only intensified with the rise of the internet, as pop stars and musicians seek the approval of their fans and vice-versa. And before you know it, you get diehard fanbases who completely subsume to the artist's point-of-view, regardless of common sense or any form of sane criticism.

But there's a nastier version of this, and that's not just in the pandering towards the fans themselves, but towards their lifestyle and ideology. This is when some acts will make art designed to reinforce the fan's personal beliefs and preferences, make them feel justified in their lifestyle choices. And here's where I have to be brutally honest: we all have favourite acts in this category, the acts that don't really challenge us, but produce art that seems specifically designed to reward us for caring all the same. Hell, The Backstreet Boys made one of their greatest hits off of this premise with 'Larger Than Life', which was a song that spelled out that feedback relationship between fan and artist in explicit terms.

And look, art designed with fans in mind isn't always the healthiest - it's the equivalent of musical comfort food - but it doesn't mean this sort of material has to be harmful, as long as said fans keep their critical faculties engaged and are aware of the messages behind said art. It's not exactly a natural response, but then again, engagement with art isn't always designed to be easy - hell, some would make the argument that art that is challenging to engage with is the best kind of art, as those added hurdles on your part push you closer towards the artist's headspace.

But too often, that critical faculty gets shut off, and you get legions of Beliebers and Directioners and Juggalos, people who will say and do insane things because the artists have cultivated a fandom that reinforces their decisions, good or bad, so long as it supports the artist in question. And when you start including this sort of pandering towards lifestyle choices or ideology or political beliefs, elements that have a real impact on people's lives, you're treading in questionable territory, and if the artist isn't conscientious of that fact, things can get even worse. Or, to put it another way, there's a reason Eminem wrote songs like 'Role Model' and 'Who Knew' and 'Sing For The Moment' - he knew people empathized with the anger and fear and real emotion in his music, and in songs like 'Stan', he revealed his fear that his art could be used to justify dangerous lifestyles. 

But then you have artists who don't nearly care as much, or whom actively seem to want to encourage people to buy into their music, or whom are too lazy or stupid to notice the potential consequences of their art - and with that, we finally come to Justin Moore.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Justin Moore is one of the most rancid and terrible country acts working today, and if Kacey Musgraves represents everything right with modern country, Justin Moore represents everything toxic and wrong. Not only is his instrumentation completely devoid of texture and flavour and his vocals make my skin crawl, but the premise of his material is centered around pandering to his country demographic. And it's not just directed at his fans, but at his fans' lifestyles, ideology, and political beliefs, music that seems clinically designed to reinforce the worst possible impulses of his fanbase. Songs like 'Bait A Hook' and 'This Is NRA Country' are tracks that are explicitly aiming to cultivate the sort of backwards, contemptible, anti-intellectual horse manure that plays to the FOX-News watching, Limbaugh-listening, Obama-hating types, all mixed with a heavy dose of masculine swagger and privilege that should have died decades ago. 

And you know, I'm not one to attack art for its subject matter - except when there isn't a shred of authenticity in Justin Moore's delivery or presentation. It's too clean, it's too polished, there isn't a shred of humour or real feeling here besides smug, stupid obnoxiousness. Let's throw up a comparison with The Zac Brown Band, an act that has their fair amount of southern pride as well, but it's clear from the rich texture in their vocals and instrumentation, and the emotional heart in which they sell their material that it's at least coming from somewhere real. In contrast, if it wasn't for the accent and the grating oversinging, Justin Moore would come across as a shill.

But I'm willing - for some ungodly reason - to give this guy another chance. After all, people can change and grow and given that he didn't write quite as many songs on his new album, maybe the Nashville machine managed to strip away enough of the elements I found reprehensible. So, with that in mind, what do I think of Justin Moore's new album, Off The Beaten Path?

Well, I prize honesty, so here it is: this album is terrible. Justin Moore's Off The Beaten Path isn't just the worst of the country albums I've reviewed thus far this year, it is also on the list of one of the worst albums I'm heard this year, period. Not only do all of my previous issues with Justin Moore still hold, but he and his songwriters manage to create fresh new ones! I am both astounded and appalled this album got cleared for release, because the sheer amount of rancorous, hateful stupidity on display is mindboggling.

But before I justly tear this album to shreds, let's point out the few things that it does right, because there's a few elements that aren't completely worthless here. Say what you will about Justin Moore's terrible, overwrought, barely on-key singing, but he does approach his subject material with a certain amount of energy, and you can buy he definitely believes what he's selling. And I'll say this, he doesn't exactly make filler either - there are all sorts of negative adjectives I could use (and am going to use) to describe this album, but boring is not one of them.

And you know, the guitar work on this album is actually pretty solid. Sure, the tone on the guitar is flat and lifeless and the production completely squelches any chances for Justin Moore's instrumentation to develop any force or personality, but some of the solos are passable and not really worth hating. The frustrating fact, though, is that the production on this album renders the guitarwork (or indeed the majority of the instrumentation) completely ineffectual, and what's worse is that it really doesn't fit the tone Justin Moore was attempting to go for on this album. I will have many, many things to say about Justin Moore's songwriting, but he's clearly trying to write material for small-town rural audiences - so why the hell is his production so pop, with little to no texture anywhere in his instrumentation? He might be trying for down-to-earth country authenticity, but his production completely betrays that!

Of course, Justin Moore's vocal delivery doesn't help matters. One of my big issues with the guy - besides his painfully scrubbed clean image that looks incredibly fake - is that whenever he sings, he never actually sounds like he's enjoying himself or having any fun and so many of his songs are just overloaded with an edge of serious sincerity that just doesn't always fit. Look, I like sincerity and honesty in songwriting, but sometimes you need self-awareness, which I'm starting to think Justin Moore doesn't have. I was having a little difficulty initially tracing back the influence of this delivery, and then I figured it out - it's very much reminiscent of Brooks & Dunn, particularly their later work that was more hard-edged and serious. But here's the thing: Brooks & Dunn may have taken their work seriously, but they still wrote fun songs, and were actually good songwriters!

And really, I could go on and on about the songwriting itself on this album... so I will. The songwriting on Off The Beaten Path is absurdly bad, to the point where I started wondering if this was a joke. Considering I've had plenty of recent experience hearing from the Nashville songwriting machine, I was astounded how low-brow and poorly written the lyrics were on this album, mostly on songs courtesy of Moore himself. Of course you get songs about booze, but the song 'Beer' is one of the laziest odes to alcohol I've ever heard! And of course you were going to get your songs about girls, but then you get tracks like 'I'd Want It To Be Yours' which rivals 'Honkytonk Badonkadonk' as one of the most shameless songs written about a woman's ass in music! The lyrics are minimalist and sloppy, often coming across as unfinished at points, and it really makes Justin Moore sound like a blithering idiot on some songs.

He also tries to come off as a hell raiser a couple times on Off The Beaten Path, and not only is it completely unbelievable, it's also aligned with some terrible songs. On songs like 'Point At You' he brags about it and whenever someone asks whether or not he has a good side, he just points at his girl - uh, just a question, did you just admit you have no positive qualities, because I might be able to vouch for that? And that leads to the follow-up question: why the hell is this girl still with him? I asked the question again on 'That's How I Know You Love Me', which has lyrics like 'you never tried to change me / you just tried to save me' - well, clearly it didn't work, because you obviously haven't changed, Justin Moore! Not only does it perpetuate the reprehensible 'girl tries to save bad boy' routine, the song romanticizes it - yeah, because that's what we need.

And speaking of reprehensible things this album does, I want to single out the song 'Old Habits', featuring Miranda Lambert. Now, this is already something that sounds strikingly similar to Keith Urban's 'We Were Us', another duet with Miranda Lambert that just occurred on his most recent album (albeit not as well written), but it also sounds strikingly similar to another song, a song that just so happens to be one of my favourite country songs of the past few years and my favourite hit song of 2011. I want you all to try this experiment with me: here's 'Old Habits' by Justin Moore, and here's the other song. Notice any slight similarities, maybe in the chord progression or vocal delivery or the fact that one song is a complete fucking rip-off of the other? Now I'm not going to call Justin Moore a thieving hack, because he didn't write this song - but dear god, he should have known better.

And of course there is pandering to Southern pride and the 'good 'ole days', and it's done with the clumsiness and bold-faced lack of shame that we've all come to expect from Justin Moore by now. And it's starts early on this album with 'Old Back In The New School'. which is an undeniable attack on the presumed decline of moral fiber in today's society which includes lines like 'You can wear your pants down around your knees / but that don't mean a dang to me' - so yeah, sure, let's throw a little casual racism on the pot here! And look, I have a lengthy digression on how cultural norms and morality have evolved over the past few years, but I have a hard time buying into this brand of self-righteous pandering from a guy who is only six years older than me! But what really gets kind of bizarre about this album is that as for much as Justin Moore praises the country lifestyle, he has songs like 'This Kind Of Town' where he attempts to glorify Walmart with complete sincerity and it comes across as more sad than uplifting - you know, the kind of song that would make Alan Jackson, the writer of 'Little Man', spit fire and brimstone. Or there are songs like 'Field Fulla Hillbillies', which operates on the same premise of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and basically operates as a family from the city just staring out the car window at the rednecks, treating them almost like a walking freak show! Does this man have no self-awareness whatsoever?

Well, if he did, he probably wouldn't have released the one song on this album I do think is passable, which is 'One Dirt Road', which is a hyper-earnest prayer to God (seriously) there should be just one dirt road in heaven so he can recreate paradise on earth. Is it schmaltzy as all hell? Oh god yes. But at the same time, Justin Moore sells it with some real conviction and it's earnest enough that I really can't make fun of it as much as I'd like. I'm not going to mock somebody's faith, particularly when you can tell it plays a big role in his life. In fact, that might actually be a good fit for you, Justin Moore: go make Christian rock - that way, I'll never, ever have to listen to your terrible music ever again!

So yeah, Off The Beaten Path is junk, the worst kind of country music and the sort of rancid, pandering worthlessness that Nashville seems to think American audiences want to hear. And look, while I'm not about to step up here and say that I have faith in American intelligence and that they want 'art' from their country music, they deserve better than this. Between the lackluster instrumentation, Justin Moore's misplaced delivery, and songwriting that 2 Chainz would laugh at, this album easily earns its 3/10. 

If you like country music and are willing to stand up for it and believe that it is worthy of critical appraisal, you should avoid this album like the plague. Maybe then Nashville will finally get the message.

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