I don’t know who “we” is, but I wish they had stayed gone.
Jason Aldean has been on a decent little run lately, with songs like “Drowns The Whiskey” and “Rearview Town” earning some critical plaudits (well, I gave them plaudits, at least) while also maintaining his commercial success (you have to go back to 2013’s off-the-wall Joe Diffie tribute “1994” to find an Aldean single that peaked lower than #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Still, he’s recently been eclipsed by rising stars by Luke “Thanos” Combs, so with the Rearview Town era coming to a close, Aldean needed a big single to unite the people behind him and emphatically claim the throne as the biggest singer in country music. Instead, we got “We Back,” a bizarre McArthur-like “I have returned” proclamation that doesn’t fit on any level, and generally highlights everything that’s always annoyed me about Aldean’s style.
The production is exactly what you’d expect from an Aldean single: In-your-face electric guitars cranked up to eleven, a mixture of real and synthetic percussion, and a dark, foreboding tone that’s way too serious for the subject matter. Instead of the celebratory, let’s-party vibe that a song like this should have, there’s an angry edge to the sound that’s borderline scary: Where “Rearview Town” showcased an unstable nihilism where the narrator was walking away from everything they held dear, the rage behind “We Back” is more calculated and cold, as if the narrator is returning looking for revenge against those who have supposed wronged them. This rage is not reflected in the lyrics at all, making the listener question where it’s coming from: We’re supposed to be celebrating a triumphant return of some sort, so why does it sound like we want to burn the whole place to the ground? (It’s the same feeling I get when I see people rioting after winning a Super Bowl.) There’s a lot of negative energy in this mix, and it’s neither warranted nor welcome.
Aldean had made this sort of loud, overly-serious material his calling card for over a decade now, but at some point even he has to realize that he’s better than this. His range and flow are enough to get the job done, and making this sort of narrator feel earnest is second nature to him at this point, but there’s a real snarl to his delivery here that I don’t like, as if he’s warning people not to get in his way. The audience certainly feels the emotion coming from Aldean’s performance, but it pushes them away rather than draws them in, and feels way more exclusionary than it should. Finally, there’s an obvious believability question we need to ask: Where exactly does Aldean think he’s coming back from? The man has been either on or near the country music mountaintop for ten years now, and it’s getting hard to remember a time when he wasn’t shoving this attitude in our faces. This is a song for an artist coming off a serious hiatus from the spotlight (Toby Keith would have been a much better fit), but a guy like Aldean trying to tell us “we back”? Get outta here with that baloney!
And then we get to the lyrics, which are nothing more than a generic ode to “country” folks, and declaring the return of people like the narrator to prominence. It doesn’t work on an artist level with a singer as successful as Aldean, is doesn’t work from a sonic perspective (the hard-rock and synthetic elements are receding in favor of a more-traditional sound), and it doesn’t work from a rural, “country” perspective (news flash: we’re all still getting screwed by people with money/power). The description of the man in the first verse is so paint-by-numbers a five-year-old could have written in, the woman here is reduced to a pair of cutoff jeans and a koozie, and that’s pretty much all the song has to offer beyond an over-inflated attitude that’s not endearing or relatable. It’s admittedly put in an awkward position by Aldean and his producer, but there’s little substance beyond the style, and screaming “we back” a whole bunch of times doesn’t make it true.
“We Back” is a reflection of everything I can’t stand about country music lately: Attitude and anger without justification, writing without wit or imagination, and singers metaphorically banging their fist on a table making proclamations that aren’t even remotely true. It’s a significant step backwards for Jason Aldean, and makes me wonder if he’s feeling a bit more threatened about his place in country music than he’s letting on. He can’t tell us he has returned when he hasn’t actually gone anywhere, but methinks he’s seeing an unwanted trip in his future…
Rating: 4/10. No thank you.