Sunday, June 17, 2018

album review: 'the mountain' by dierks bentley

So I'll admit it wasn't really my plan to review this. 

Well okay, that's not quite true, I was planning on adding this to my schedule naturally, but then nobody added the Kanye and Kid Cudi collaboration and given how quickly it attracted attention, I really had to stop everything and ensure it got attention. But even then, I still had other albums that would have come ahead of this... and yet the more listens I gave them, the less I had to say, with this becoming especially true for Lily Allen - where decent writing was squandered on utterly forgettable production - and Sugarland, which might have landed a few good hooks but was crippled by slapdash production, underweight writing, and the awful decision that they should try to rap.

And honestly, if I hadn't been aware that Dierks Bentley had intended The Mountain as a course correction, I would have been concerned similar tendencies could creep onto his work - it wasn't like he wasn't heading in that direction. He's always stayed a little adjacent to popular trends in the mainstream - which is one reason why he took off to make the bluegrass album Up The Ridge in 2010 - but several cuts on 2014's Riser took him perilously close to bro-country and Black was damn near a desaturated pop record, only saved by Bentley having better taste than many of his peers and deep cuts that tended to be of high quality - keep in mind that his song 'Here On Earth' made my top ten favourite songs of 2014 across all genres, he can be that good when he wants to be.

So yeah, I had high hopes with The Mountain - buzz was suggesting he was making a hard pivot towards heartland rock-tinged country and he was recruiting Brothers Osborne and Brandi Carlile to do so, and if there's a sound that could flatter Bentley's voice, it's that. I had every reason to believe this would be pretty damn solid at the very least - did he get there?

So this is the hardest kind of review to make interesting, and if it wasn't for the fact that I did want to give Dierks Bentley some airtime and attention I probably would have put this on the Trailing Edge. Because really, there's just not a lot to be said about The Mountain as the right kind of course correction, the sort of album where you can tell that Dierks Bentley is getting back to his roots and making the sort of middle-aged, rootsy, mature music that you can tell feels a lot more natural than whatever the hell he tried on Black. But on the flip side with that, for as much as I can call it pretty damn good, I'm struggling to say more about it, because it's not like I don't like a bunch of other country in this vein that's smarter and aims higher, and Dierks Bentley isn't quite in the same territory as a Jason Isbell or Lori McKenna or Karen Jonas.

And I think a big part of this comes down to the songwriting, so let's start there. I'll definitely give points to Dierks Bentley for avoiding goofy, obvious bro-country tropes and reframing his music for an older audience... even though you wouldn't quite think that given how the album starts with 'Burning Man' with Brothers Osborne in their low-key, don't-give-a-damn mold that increasingly strikes me as a poor fit for the duo, even if they do finally start shredding on the final third... even if you can argue Bentley gave his own band more space on the title track a song later. But after that and the title track, we get 'Living', the sort of blissful, married-couple-minus-kids song that's a natural fit for Dierks Bentley and certainly is pleasant and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do for its target audience... but there isn't much of a sense of stakes or drama to make it all that interesting. Honestly, that's probably one of the reasons why 'Woman, Amen' doesn't do much for me despite the huge hook - it's a good love song, but it's missing that added bit of detail or flair to drive it home for me and feel distinctive, and when you follow it with 'You Can't Bring Me Down', it just feels like we're settling in for a placid, borderline-self-satisfied experience that's smart enough to at least reference a rougher past, but isn't really going to seriously engage with it. And this reminded me immediately of the last Turnpike Troubadours record A Long Way To Your Heart, which was also a record about growing up and settling down and finding maturity... but that record opened with the protagonist's house burning down and a string of near-constant, detailed reminders that his old way of living had real, burning consequences - literally. Now to be fair, when Dierks Bentley pivots to songs with relationship drama his knack for adding shades of nuance definitely plays to his advantage - 'Goodbye In Telluride' might feel conventional in its composition, but I like the sentiment in trying to preserve things a little longer... but it suffers the problem of being sequenced right after 'Nothing On But The Stars', which turns up the heat on a near-identical situation and winds up being a lot better. And then you get the opposite case near the end of the record, with 'Stranger To Myself' being a pretty great ode to old drunken days he set aside when he met his girl, but two songs later it's followed by 'How I'm Going Out' that plays in the exact same territory but feels a lot sharper and winds up as a fantastic album closer and one of the best songs Dierks Bentley has ever cut - not quite 'Here On Earth' territory, nothing on this record quite gets close to that, but certainly close. 

Honestly, I wish Dierks Bentley had played up the outdoorsy angle a bit more, because with his thick, expressive but slightly shredded vocals and knack for slightly more high-concept, rugged tableaus, songs like the title track and 'Son Of The Sun' are actually pretty solid, and he can capture both sides of that lonely journey, from the detailed wistfulness of 'My Religion' to the melancholy of knowing and accepting how it ended on 'One Way' to the more upbeat cheer of venturing back off on 'Travellin' Light' with Brandi Carlile, where outside of thinking she could have been mixed a little better the two have good chemistry. But this takes us to the production as a whole and... look, I've ripped into Ross Copperman a few times before and this record immediately has the advantage of being compared to Black, so I'll give him credit for moving towards a rootsier sound, at least on a fair few songs like the title track, 'My Way', and especially the final few songs like the bluegrass twinges that broke into 'Travelin' Light' - there's more fiddles, more organic drumwork, more dense acoustic arrangements, a bit more bite on the solos... but like with Black the problem is production inconsistency. Why not get rid of the programmed percussion altogether instead of plugging it behind 'Living' and 'You Can't Bring Me Down', especially when you're just going to bring in real drums for the hook anyway? Why blow the snares and cymbals so damn loud for a slow-burn hookup on 'Nothing On But The Stars' and add in programmed beats on the verses? Why make the guitars phrases and handclaps sound so damn stiff on 'Goodbye In Telluride' before you bring in a more organic groove for the hook? And again, when you get songs like the atmospheric simmer of 'My Religion' with really well-defined bass or the plucky atmospherics of 'Stranger To Myself' with plenty of pedal steel, you know that Copperman can bring that more spacious sound to bear with organic production, so it leaves me wondering if this is a play for mainstream crossover appeal on later singles or just taking shortcuts, especially considering their lead-off single 'Woman, Amen' falls closer to the rootsier side.

But as a whole... look, this is a very good album - it doesn't feel nearly as compromised as parts of Riser did and it's definitely stronger than Black - but I feel like for the eight to ten listens I gave this I should like it more. And at this point it feels like for Dierks Bentley to get to that next level there needs to be more ambition in the writing or a change in production team. But I'm still left with questions where Dierks Bentley wants to go: he's in his early forties, he's got a diehard fanbase and enough of a back catalog so he could do whatever he wants, so the fact that we're still getting compromised moments at all is bothersome. So I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation, but also if he's watching a bit of advice: at this point, I'd argue Nashville needs you a lot more than the other way around, and it's clear you want to make more organic music, so don't re-up your contract at Capitol, go independent or Broken Bow if you need some sort of distributor, and don't make any concessions on your art. At this point, you have everything to gain by giving it a shot, and I reckon the music will be better for it - this might be good, but I remember Up On The Ridge. I know you're capable of greatness.

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