Monday, June 6, 2016

album review: 'black' by dierks bentley

I think Dierks Bentley doesn't get the appreciation he deserves.

Now that's a loaded statement, especially if all you know him for are the singles - most of which he himself would throw under the bus. Even though I was late to getting on board with Bentley, he's had a surprisingly interesting career, starting off the 2000s with some reasonably well-received records before making a hard left turn to crank out a bluegrass album. And while he's pivot back around to release albums like Home and Riser in the following years, he's always stood out from the pack. Sure, he's had his party songs or proto-bro-country tracks, but delve into his albums and you'll find a smarter, more inventive songwriter and one that doesn't need to cater to trends to crank out hits - and even when he does he tends to do it better! As much as 'Drunk On A Plane' is far from his best, there's still something about the detail in the writing and loaded bitterness of his delivery that adds bite to it. And again, that's him at his worst - at his best there's a subtle sort of emotive charisma to his voice that makes songs like the tribute to his late father and his crisis of faith on 'Here On Earth' some of the most powerful work you'll hear in modern country music and one of my top songs of 2014, hands down.

As such, I was prepared to give Dierks Bentley a lot of credit - sure, 'Somewhere On A Beach' was the sort of leering douchebaggery that's hard to stomach but even he had slagged the song as one he didn't write and not at all representative of his record, which was more of a concept album exploring complicated relationships. And given how true that was about his last record Riser and how Dierks Bentley has a reputation for working with the right people - he brought Maren Morris and Elle King on board for this album, always positive signs - I gave him the benefit of the doubt and dug into Black - was it worth it?

Well, if I was giving Dierks Bentley the benefit of the doubt, he sure as hell tested me with Black. Because by the Nine Hells, this was a frustrating listen, with a good underlying concept and even some of the production to execute it, but nowhere near cohesive enough to properly stick the landing. And if Dierks Bentley was less of a compelling performer or imaginative writer, this record would have tilted into mediocrity very fast. As it is, it's decent, but man, it should have been far better.

Because here's the thing: I really like Dierks Bentley as a singer. His voice has natural raspy texture that is capable of huge power and subtle nuance that most country performers can't balance as well. He's got the versatility to play into songs with a complex emotional dynamic and play them with real sincerity and rugged flavour. And what you need when you have a voice like his is production that gives it space to breathe or at least accentuates his presence - and thus it was a little alarming that the first thing you need to get right on a record like this isn't consistent. Sure, for the first three songs he has the space he needs, but starting with 'What The Hell Did I Say' you start getting the impression he's not getting the swell or volume he needs, not helped by the odd hollowness in his multi-tracking and vocal production on 'Somewhere On A Beach' or 'Roses And A Time Machine'. But by far it's the worst on 'Mardi Gras', which runs away with being one of the worst Dierks Bentley songs ever written for a number of reasons, one of the most noticeable being the demo quality of the vocal pickup.

Granted, that's far from the only problem, so let's dig into the instrumentation and production. Now I gave Dierks Bentley something of a pass with Riser because despite his usage of spacier synth effects and even drum machines, he had a knack for melody and a windswept sort of production that kept the groove and flow going. And I'm not going to say that the same doesn't mostly apply here as well, but you can definitely tell that the balance in the mix is tilting towards thicker, heavier percussion and that's not always a good sign. Again, the album starts off pretty strong: the title track has a surprising amount of liquid guitar melody and piano accents to balance against the waves of deeper drumwork, and while tracks like 'What The Hell Do I Say', 'Freedom', 'All The Way To Me', and 'Light It Up' press the guitars through a few too many effects, there's still a foundational melody and flow, even if I think the banjo tone is a little too shrill. But what's always bothered me about the introduction of sharper drum machines getting more prominence is that it chops up the groove, and that definitely starts to come through here - when they're kept more gentle or faded on 'Pick Up' or the pretty damn excellent 'I'll Be The Moon' singing opposite Maren Morris, I can ignore them, especially as they often fade into real drums. But even though I like the ragged guitar tone on 'Somewhere On A Beach', that sandy pop and handclap defines the flow of the song, and it becomes even more prominent on the piano ballad 'Why Do I Feel' or the choppy faded pop of 'Different For Girls', at least on the verses, where the guitars and banjo are faded fragments against the deeper crack and skitter of the beat, but even there it can kind of work through a little more melody holding the pieces together. But the worst example is - surprise - the garish sleaze of 'Mardi Gras', with Trombone Shorty blaring over the track with full horns that pulls into a bass-heavy stagger with the ugly guitar tones that seems to be trying for swampy New Orleans vaudeville, something that's so artificial and over-the-top that it doesn't remotely fit with Bentley's woozy attempt at sincerity. The track sticks out like a sore thumb and when you compare it to the bassy tones and extended guitar solo that holds together 'Can't Be Replaced', you realize it should never have been on this record.

But then again, that's a question that should have been raised about significant chunks of this record, which ties into lyrics and themes. And let me stress again that I liked Dierks Bentley's thematic conceit of exploring the growth and maturity of a man that develops through complicated relationships - his emotional maturity and willingness to explore that nuance has always been a strong point for him, along with the detail that tends to flesh out his writing. Hell, it's one of the reasons I'm more willing to give a pass to tracks like 'Somewhere On A Beach' - it's a bitter and obnoxious kiss-off track that bites a little too hard from the same formula that worked for 'Drunk On A Plane', but it is supposed to be and probably succeeds a bit too well. But if you look at this record's progression thematically... man, it's thin, mostly because this record doesn't take the same sorts of chances at vulnerability that made the best songs on Riser work. The best song on the record is the complicated emotional dynamic on 'I'll Be The Moon', where Dierks is playing the other guy to Maren Morris' current relationship, and while he doesn't like it, he's willing to play the other guy if she wants to keep it a secret and won't just end things, even if it's completely the wrong choice. And the dying relationship of 'Why Do I Feel' shows his own insecurities working against him as he struggles whether to break things off or keep trying. Hell, even though 'Different For Girls' with Elle King is incredibly hamfisted and probably unintentionally plays into broad gender stereotypes, I can respect the good heart behind the intentions - part of maturity is taking other points of view into consideration. But surrounding these tracks are two other types of songs: tracks that are going for a broad, oddly comic sensibility, and those that are too broadly sketched to really fit thematically at all. And it's hard to tell which hurts this record more, mostly because I'm not a fan of Dierks Bentley's comic timing or delivery - he's too serious to properly sell the jokes - even if songs like 'What The Hell Did I Say' or 'Roses And A Time Machine' on paper do land thematically. I think the larger issue comes with tracks like 'Freedom' or 'Pick Up' or 'All The Way To Me' or parts of 'Can't Be Replaced' - I don't doubt the sincerity, but they don't really reflect the thematic arc and with the arsenal of brand names piled in they can feel a little too much like the checklist bro-country tracks that Dierks Bentley usually rose above. And thus by the time we get to the emotional 'maturity' of the record's end... yeah, I can buy it, but I'm not hearing the progression or struggle to get there thematically, especially when the bad decisions are played more for broad comedy or when 'Mardi Gras' is placed way too close to the end of the record.

And look, on some level I feel I'm being too hard on this record, but that's more because I expected Dierks Bentley to deliver more. He's got one of my favourite voices in mainstream country, and he's at least trying to aim higher on a conceptual level - and hell, I can even appreciate him being one of very few who can blend modern percussion with spacious tones that are still recognizably country. But despite all the lyrical detail the emotional stakes of this record are frustratingly broad and vague, which to me might indicate the label meddling for an easier product for the mainstream to digest - something which I've always thought was asinine because the country songs that tend to be remembered are those that have iconic detail in the writing and sound. And without the killer standouts like 'Here On Earth' or 'Damn These Dreams'... yeah, for me it's an extremely strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but more if you're a Dierks Bentley fan looking to see where he's going next. Otherwise... sorry, but he's definitely done better - if you're curious it's worth a listen, but otherwise you could probably skip it.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who is a big Dierks fan I was really disappointed. Looking past the fact that it's really not country outside of the use of the dobro on some of the latter tracks, I actually really enjoyed the spacier production on some of these tracks. That being said, most of these songs aren't far removed from the other familiar mainstream country tropes. Easily my least favorite by him.

    Btw, would love it if you reviewed the new self-titled album from Robert Ellis. It's Americana with hints of Pop, Rock, and Bluegrass. I think you'd like it.