Tuesday, September 20, 2016

album review: 'they don't know' by jason aldean

I've put up with a lot from Jason Aldean.

And make no mistake, it seems like every time he opens up his mouth in an interview I end up finding more things about him that frustrate me or piss me off, mostly because I should like this guy more. For one, he's one of the few 'independent' country artists to have consistent chart success on mainstream radio, and you can tell in terms of his sound he at least tries to push into new directions. Don't get me wrong, 'Burnin' It Down' was awful and helped push the metropolitan country trend that followed in the aftermath of bro-country, but you can tell it was coming from a mostly unique perspective. And to give Aldean a little more credit, he does occasionally put out songs I really like - a deep cut called 'Don't Change Gone' actually landed on my list of best songs of 2014, and that list didn't include the hits!

But eventually you start shifting towards a tipping point, and in the lead-up to They Don't Know... well, it was mixed to say the least. I didn't mind his more country rock-inspired lead-off singles for this release, but then you balance it with the incident where he got caught in blackface at a Halloween party, or how his anger at the term 'bro-country' increasingly titled towards intentional ignorance - yes, you weren't at the forefront of the movement, but don't think you weren't a part of enabling the environment. And when he went to Billboard and said that he was intentionally choosing songs that weren't 'too clever or songwriterly' for his albums, I just about had it - sure, Jason Aldean, I get that not all country music has to be insightful or contain emotional nuance, but if you're going to embrace that, can your production be a little less colourless and your music be a little more fun? Granted, there's a suspicion that I've discussed with fellow country fans that also feels Jason Aldean is kind of jealous of the reputation Eric Church built for himself as the 'outlaw' in mainstream country - but Eric Church chose to embrace his singer-songwriter instinct that, yes, were a little weird but gave him real personality. Aldean has never seemed willing to compromise his swaggering alpha-bro image, which as country swings back towards quality makes him appear one-dimensional.

But whatever, we've got the new record - apparently delayed from release on streaming services so Aldean can get another #1 album on pure sales and for another headline of 'standing against the man' - so how did it turn out?

Well, I'll say what I said on Twitter after my first few listens: this is easily the most tedious, one-dimension bore of a record I've heard in 2016. You thought Views was drab, get ready for fifteen tracks of generic writing, mediocre-to-bad production, and a singer who knows that if he shovels out an album every few years he's going to make money from an audience that deserves better. I don't even want to review this, and really, there's a part of me that just wants to abuse They Don't Know for five minutes, fill up the clock, but what is even the point of getting mad at this? I can't even say that it's aggressively bad to listen through - mostly because it feels like if you've heard one Jason Aldean song on this album, you've heard them all!

And when I say that, I'm not entirely referring to the lyrics - we'll get to those, I promise - but the production and instrumentation. Crunching rock guitars, drums that alternative between abusing cymbals and overly programmed - you're not sneaking stuttering trap snares past me, Aldean, from 'Lights Come On' to the title track, from 'One We Won't Forget' to 'When The Lights Go Out' - and a blur of synth and steel guitar to blend it all into a homogeneous blob. Forget a melody coming to the forefront to complement the vocal line or an interesting solo that shows any sort of virtuoso talent or a bass guitar to drive any sort of real groove, nearly every song on this record falls into this mold trying for swaggering machismo and instead falling far closer to the dreary bland slurry that ruined so much of post-grunge - or worse still, the overmixed sludgy sound with badly layered strings sections that was popular in the 2000s that shows up on the duet with Kelsea Ballerini on 'First Time Again'. And if the guitars had anything close to real bite or muscle, or they thought to add real colour to anything, this could potentially work - I've always said that Aldean can at least pick songs with a bit of underlying melody with a tendency towards minor keys that at least doesn't feel conventional, and when he lets pianos and organ on 'Whiskey'd Up' and 'Reason To Love L.A.' they aren't bad - but that melody is never the main focus, or when it is the tone is so muddy and watery that it carries no actual body, especially against the drum machines, monochromatic riffs, and a drippy mix that has depth but nothing else. And that's the other infuriating thing: songs like 'This Plane Don't Go There' actually have the potential towards a more spacious sound that Dierks Bentley pushed to its logical extreme on Black - but Aldean has no taste or sensibility for groove or atmosphere, so he never really uses that space to do anything interesting before the riffs cut right back in. 

Now here's the thing: I'd be lying if I said if there weren't a few of the melodic grooves that kind of work. The opening riff on 'Comin' In Hot' isn't bad, especially with the acoustic touches, there was some nastiness to the riff on the title track that had some punch, the sparse acoustics balancing against the distant pedal steel on 'In Case You Don't Remember' was pretty enough, and there was a hint of smolder on 'All Out Of Beer' that could have been taken somewhere interesting with more restraint. If only the lyrics could remotely pay any of these songs off, add any sort of nuance or intensity to make them interesting! Unfortunately, this really doesn't happen, as there are two types of songs on this album: party & hookup tracks that are as generic and forgettable as they come; and 'aftermath of relationship' songs that can't remotely approach what Jason Aldean delivered on Old Boots, New Dirt. Let's start with the first category, and where the lack of specific details or stories really hurts these songs. It's not that they're outright awful in their details - although 'Comin' In Hot' doesn't help itself with Aldean giving his girl a time limit on how long she can get ready, 'When The Lights Go Out' describing sex as him 'falling into her', and 'Bad' pushing the Madonna/Whore complex than ever - the larger problem is that they say nothing that stands out. For as much as Aldean hates the term bro-country, the checklist nature of these songs and bargain barrel imagery fits the bill. Where things get a bit more interesting is the 'aftermath of relationship' songs - and yet somehow more disappointing, as Aldean doesn't even try for greater emotional nuance. 'This Plane Don't Go There' is so matter-of-fact it feels completely inert, which is a lot less excusable when you get the drunken hookup of 'All Out Of Beer' - he's literally too drunk to bother to stop her when this ex comes around for sex, through he's quick to profess he still has his walls up. Then there's 'Any Ol' Barstool', where a writer with more subtlety would play his newfound freedom with a trace of melancholy in loneliness after getting dumped... but Aldean doesn't deliver and the tonal dissonance doesn't work the way it should. Then you have the sole exception these categories on the title track - more rural pandering how people in the city don't get hard work on the farm, but for a song playing in this lane you'd really think he'd actually use details to flesh out the story - nope!

Now to be fair, Aldean does bring some traces of wistfulness to 'A Little More Summertime' and especially 'In Case You Don't Remember', the latter one of the best songs on this record. Shame that's one of the few emotions he's remotely capable of conveying, which brings us to Jason Aldean himself. And let's put aside the mixing that often placing him just a shade too deep to let his slightly higher tones cut through the mix - when I call this album one-dimensional, I'm referring most to Aldean himself. Forget subtlety or a tone that might imply rawness or sharper emotions - instead, he bullishly bellows his way through tracks with none of the deeper presence of a Chris Young or Randy Houser, but none of the bite of all the hard rock singers he idolizes. I get there's an appeal to being stoic, but Aldean's brand of it is so flat and gruff and often completely wrong for the subject matter that it sucks the masculine appeal out of it and rings as borderline unpleasant. Every song Aldean makes seems like work to him - and as such, when Kelsea Ballerini shows up and tries to give a more expressive performance in his lane, he's got as much chemistry with her as a medium-sized boulder - or given how watery and muddy the textures can be, maybe a washing machine.

And that's really what They Don't Know feels like to me: a functional product, meant to fill time on country radio between more interesting and charismatic performers, somehow losing the courage or artistic intent to at least try for more diverse sounds - the Maroon 5 of country music, if you will, full of attempts at macho swagger that too often fall embarrassingly flat. Granted, I can't get that angry at this - mediocrity is very different to outright awfulness, and this album doesn't quite take enough missteps to fall into the pits of truly awful country records this decade. But it certainly is mediocre and forgettable enough to earn a light 5/10 and no recommendation. Even for Jason Aldean fans, this feels like a cash-in - he's done more and better on earlier records, I'd skip this.

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