Sunday, February 23, 2014

album review: 'cole swindell' by cole swindell

I have no idea why I'm doing this review.

And at this point, does anyone care? Does anyone want to hear me deliver yet another discussion/rant about bro-country like the half-dozen other times I've done it in front of every other act in this vein I've covered? I've given this particular subgenre more intellectual consideration and brain cells than it deserves, talked about the good albums and the bad albums, and at this point, I don't know what else to say. Despite songwriters, country artists, and even radio programmers saying that we've hit peak bro-country a good few months back, we're still getting artists coming out of the woodwork trying to cash in! How and why does this keep happening?

Well, in the case of Cole Swindell, I actually have an answer for that. See, what you might not know is that bro-country superstar Luke Bryan and popular Nashville songwriter Dallas Davidson were roommates at Georgia Southern University. Well, it turns out - and this is so hilariously ironic I couldn't believe it when I first read it - that Luke Bryan belonged to the fraternity Sigma Chi, and so did Cole Swindell. In fact, Swindell sold merchandise for Luke Bryan for three years before trying to make it as a songwriter himself. Fortunately for him, he hitched his star to the right wagon, Luke Bryan and bro-country became the biggest things in country music, and Cole Swindell became his opening act. 

Now Cole Swindell is a bit unique in comparison with most bro-country acts, in that he doesn't really rely on the Nashville songwriting machine as heavily (indeed, there's not a single Dallas Davidson song on the album, which did surprise me) and he has writing credits on all of his songs. Hell, he's even written songs for other artists like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, Scotty McCreery, and even Chris Young's half-hearted stab at bro-country last year. The bad news is that everything he's written is terrible, some of the worst songs on the albums in question and at best only rising to being interchangeable and bland. And that was one of the reasons I didn't want to cover this album, just abuse it for five minutes.

Sadly, I don't even think I'll be able to do that, because really, this album operates as a microcosm of bro-country as a whole: sterile, meat-headed, constantly repeating cliches, dumb as sand, and really getting played out by this point. And after multiple listens through Cole Swindell's self-titled album, I struggled to put together any cohesive thoughts regarding this record. I can't even hate it because, well, it's too blissfully stupid to hate. 

I should explain, so let's start with the very limited list of things this album gets right. Cole Swindell is a decent singer, even though I don't get a lot of texture or personality from his smooth delivery. And for the most part, he's just happy to be here and you can tell he's throwing a lot of positive energy into this album. He doesn't take himself that seriously and only occasionally becomes obnoxious on the worst tracks of the album. And on a technical level, the songwriting isn't terrible - it's definitely clumsy and coming from Sun Kil Moon to this induces some definite whiplash, but it's not egregiously awful or sloppy, or even all that offensive.

But in a way, I kind of wish it was, because there is nothing on this album that hasn't been done before a dozen or so times in the past year, especially in the lyrics. You get your party songs, your attempt at love songs, the songs about picking up girls and good old boys and living country - and none of it has any flair or texture or even much wit or humour. There's no story on this album I haven't heard elsewhere, and I could swear the lyrics were written by throwing a grab-bag of bro-country songs in a blender. The closest thing Cole Swindell gets to romance is the Luke Bryan co-written song 'I Just Want You' or 'Swayin' (the one song on this record on which he doesn't have a credit), and they're just bland more than anything else. And that's before he starts getting aggressively obnoxious, like on 'Hope You Get Lonely', which a song saying to a girl that he hopes she gets insecure and lonely, calls him, and they can have sex that Swindell describes as 'if she has room for a little regret'. And along side that display of maturity and charm is 'Ain't Worth The Whiskey', a southern pandering drinking song about Cole Swindell naming every other reason he's drinking at the bar besides the girl, mostly because 'you ain't worth the whiskey'. Ugh, i never like it when guys make these bitter little break-up songs and try to play it cool, because they always come out looking like assholes who are clearly not over it, and that's exactly what happens here. 

But those are the obnoxious tracks that stood out - the sad thing is that the rest of the album really doesn't. See, there's a funny thing about music: it doesn't have to be intelligent, and even though there are a lot of critics who would prefer music was smarter or more insightful, there isn't anything wrong with making dumb upbeat party songs. Hell, Andrew W. K. has been doing it for over a decade and he does it well. The problem is that to compensate for a lack of intellect, you need to have charisma or flair or charm or at least pump it up to eleven so it can rock or inspire more primal emotions. And this is where Cole Swindell's album falls flat on its face, because the instrumentation and production is terrible. I sincerely hope they were trying to go for a pop country vibe, because this might be the most polished, sterile country music I've heard since Taylor Swift's Red. The guitar tones are polished and devoid of texture, the chord progressions and guitar solos could have been written by a computer, and there's more electronic elements in synth choices and drum machines than I've heard in some rap songs! I won't deny that the electronic elements sound cohesive with the instrumentation, but that's because it's so sterile, polished and painfully weak, with none of the hooks having remotely any staying power in my mind, mostly because they are so rudimentary and basic to be practically interchangeable. I listened to this album multiple times before reviewing it, and I can barely remember it now! 

Look, I don't always agree with a fellow critic who stresses that 'bad is the absence of good' - I've listened to albums, there's plenty unique 'bad' there that would infuriate me regardless. Yet if I were to find an album that fits that statement, Cole Swindell's self-titled record would be at the top of my list. Everything this album has done has been done better elsewhere, either with more personality or more unique character or at least better songwriting. I can't even see bro-country fans liking this record because it's such a sterile, basic, almost soulless copy of better acts in the genre, and even on the lowest, dumbest level on which I operate, where I'm just looking to crack open beers and party, this record does nothing for me.It's a 3/10, no recommendation, and even if you're in a frathouse right now looking for your next party record, skip this one. I might not be the biggest fan of bro-country in the world, but there's better than this.

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