Wednesday, May 11, 2016

album review: 'you should be here' by cole swindell

So, for those of you who have been watching since the very beginning when I discussed the rise and fall of bro-country know that I took a bit of a complicated position surrounding the subgenre - namely that I didn't hate it altogether. I'm not sure what it was, maybe some lingering sympathies from my own bro tendencies, or maybe it was that even despite how stupid it could get, if played with sincerity and production with a little more meat or writing with a bit more tact, you could actually get decent music. 

Of course, the majority of bro-country acts maybe got one out of three on a good day and we got a whole lot of mediocrity, of which I had no qualms giving the thorough thrashing it deserved - when bro-country was good, I had no problems celebrating it, but when it was bad, I wasn't about to avoid an easy target. And one of the easiest was Cole Swindell, a former fratmate and merch manager for Luke Bryan who became a songwriter and later released a debut album I slagged as being one of the most formulaic, badly produced, and sloppily written bro-country records ever made. Until Thomas Rhett came along, Cole Swindell represented the absolute worst of bro-country for me: he might not have been the most obnoxious or processed or have the most offensive writing, but he represented the numb, sterile blandness that came to saturate country radio's mindless attempt to jump on a trend.

But let's be honest: bro-country is effectively over at this point, and Cole Swindell now had to prove he was more than just a trend. And with his lead-off single, the title track of this album that was a tribute to his late father, he actually convinced me to give him another chance. Sure, the percussion and production was too synthetic for my tastes and much of the melody line reminded me way too much of Luke Bryan's 'Crash My Party', but the writing had enough detail to feel authentic and real, even if it is framed through a bro-country lens. So, believe it or not, I had some real hope going into this album that we might see a more interesting or introspective side of Cole Swindell - did we get that?

Here's the thing: I don't know if I want to call this a good bro-country record - it's definitely an improvement over Cole Swindell's debut and shows real progressions across the board, to the point where he might actually salvage a career at the end of this. But what it is, especially thematically, is the last bro-country record. There's a feeling of finality to this record, of endings and moving on, with one last nostalgic trip to end things off but always with the knowledge that it's intended for fond memories and little else. As such, there's a part of me that's inclined to be a little charitable to this record, and not just because it's a fair bit better than I think anyone could have reasonably expected.

So how the hell did that happen? Well, the biggest part came through in the instrumentation and production... and yeah, you don't have to tell me that it's a little too slick and there are way too many drum machines for my tastes, the most egregious offender being the Florida Georgia Line-cowritten 'Party Wasn't Over' that damn near has a trap beat. But I get the impression that Cole Swindell was listening to what Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Kip Moore, and Dustin Lynch were doing with a more spacious and melodic country sound and decided to tilt towards that, bringing in some meatier guitar tones and pianos to match. Now there still are mixing problems - both 'Flatliner' and the 'Beautiful Drug' riff on 'Up' both layer their cymbals way too close and there's an odd piece that feels completely out of place in the former track - and I'm not going to deny it doesn't quite have the texture I'd prefer - that orchestral swell on 'Making My Way To You' does not have the weight to really connect - but the melodic hooks do stand out more and Swindell's not afraid to let his guitars have a bit more sizzle, or his bass guitar add some real foundation. What baffles me is why he bothered to use the drum machines at all, when so many of these songs are going to bring in real percussion anyways and on tracks like 'Broke Down' he sticks with real drums all the way. And where this album completely shocked me was on 'No Can Left Behind', which changes the sound completely for a neotraditional country stomp with piano and a much meatier riff - and sure, it doesn't fit with the rest of the record and it's a pretty dumb drinking song, but it reflects at least a willingness to go for something that might have more long-term staying power in country. And when you follow it with the acoustic-tinged ballad 'Remember Boys' that's very much playing in the same mold as Tim McGraw's 'Humble And Kind', it's clear that Cole Swindell is at least planning for a future where the sound tilts towards a more neotraditional direction.

But that won't matter much if the personality isn't there, so let's talk about Cole Swindell himself - and honestly, there's not a lot to say, mostly because he's always been a performer with a lot of earnest passion, but not much nuance. I will say this, you always get the impression that Cole Swindell believes what he's selling and generally comes across as likable - in comparison with other b-list bro-country acts, pretty much the anti-Tyler Farr. And while the opening track with Dierks Bentley might not be good - not helped by Dierks Bentley showing up Swindell in both lyrics and delivery, telling him not to play any Cole Swindell songs but Dierks Bentley songs instead if he wants to win the girl - it also reveals a knack for self-deprecating humor that actually is a fairly good feel for him, that also comes through on 'No Can Left Behind'. All of this contributes to a performer who doesn't quite have nuance, but can make up for it with sincerity, provided the songwriting can support it.

And for the most part, the songwriting is what redeems this record for me. Not all of it - outside of the jokes 'Flatliner' is pretty embarrassing, and this record can fall into generic bro-country territory with the forgettable 'Up', 'Party Wasn't Over', and 'Stars'. And I'll be the first to admit that 'No Can Left Behind' is pretty damn stupid, even if it is fun. But where this record finds poignancy and even a loose thematic throughline is in that feel of finality and wistful reminiscence I mentioned before. So much bro-country suffered because it was self-satisfied and tepid, a party for its own sake - hell, most of Cole Swindell's first album fell in that category. Whereas You Should Be Here... it goes in a different direction. The hookup doesn't happen and Cole Swindell is left alone on the dance floor on 'Middle Of A Memory', he's reflecting on the good times past on 'Home Game', and even 'Party Wasn't Over' implies he was left behind. And those moments of melancholy are actually fairly well realized on the break-up on 'Broke Down' and on the title track - again, they can feel simplistic framed through the bro-country lens, but the sentiments do ring as authentic. The song that actually impressed me a fair bit was 'Stay Downtown', where Cole Swindell actually turns down a booty call from an ex because he knows it's just going to lead to more regrets, a sign that life is behind him and he's actually growing up. It lends a poignancy to the parties mentioned in the past on 'Home Game' and 'Making My Way To You' - maybe because I've heard the cliches driven into the ground by smug douchebaggery that when approached with wistful, heartfelt fondness that it clicks far better. 

In short... look, I think on some level I'm giving this record probably more credit than it deserves, because there really are too many production issues to give it a complete pass, and more than its fair share of formulaic writing. But on the other hand, as someone who never hated bro-country and who hoped Cole Swindell could find depth and nuance... well, he didn't really find either, but he found a well-framed sincerity that manages to mostly fill the void. As such, for me it's a 6/10 and a modest recommendation. Cole Swindell made the epitaph for bro-country with You Should Be Here, and with this record he even showed a few promising places he could be heading to next... and you know, I think I'm onboard.

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